Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Physical Theories As Women You Have Dated?

O.K., this may be a TAD sexist, but it is a very novel comparison. I have a Master’s degree in physics, which I have never used and never expect to other than it looks very good on a resume which I am hoping never to have to write again, so I have known for some time that some of the deep sciences are Very Deep. Therefore, I have some “credentials” in this area, otherwise known on the “street” as “a piece of paper”. So, via Andrew Sullivan, I bring you:

P H Y S I C A L T H E O R I E S A S W O M E N .

- - - -
0. Newtonian gravity is your high-school girlfriend. As your first encounter with physics, she's amazing. You will never forget Newtonian gravity, even if you're not in touch very much anymore.

1. Electrodynamics is your college girlfriend. Pretty complex, you probably won't date long enough to really understand her.

2. Special relativity is the girl you meet at the dorm party while you're dating electrodynamics. You make out. It's not really cheating because it's not like you call her back. But you have a sneaking suspicion she knows electrodynamics and told her everything.

3. Quantum mechanics is the girl you meet at the poetry reading. Everyone thinks she's really interesting and people you don't know are obsessed about her. You go out. It turns out that she's pretty complicated and has some issues. Later, after you've broken up, you wonder if her aura of mystery is actually just confusion.

4. General relativity is your high-school girlfriend all grown up. Man, she is amazing. You sort of regret not keeping in touch. She hates quantum mechanics for obscure reasons.

5. Quantum field theory is from overseas, but she doesn't really have an accent. You fall deeply in love, but she treats you horribly. You are pretty sure she's fooling around with half of your friends, but you don't care. You know it will end badly.

6. Cosmology is the girl that doesn't really date, but has lots of hot friends. Some people date cosmology just to hang out with her friends.

7. Analytical classical mechanics is a bit older, and knows stuff you don't.

8. String theory is off in her own little world. She is either profound or insane. If you start dating, you never see your friends anymore. It's just string theory, 24/7.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

What I hate about CBS's coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament.

Commercials. Lots of commercials, and even worse, lots and lots of commercial breaks. During every single time out, there is at least one commercial, but more likely three. And it is invariably one out of the set of about fifteen that keep getting run over and over and over.... And at the end of a game, where coaches tend to call time outs frequently, there is the same commercials for the same damn products or services that we have seen probably several hundred times over the past two weeks, if you are a NCAA junkie. I don't know about other people, but seeing the same friggin' commerical forty times in the span of six hours is N0T going to entice me to buy the product any more than if I had seen it sixteen times. In fact, I may be so annoyed that I might just BOYCOTT the damn product just because they are being so intrusive. And CBS absolutely has to shove in promos for their own programming IN BETWEEN FREE THROWS! Sweet Jesus.... They interrupt very intense and sometimes anguishing moments that could have been used to drawn the viewer in or fit in some commentary or analysis, just to fit in another 30 second spot for an ad we JUST SAW 30 SECONDS AGO!

They are destroying the emotional continuity and suspense of the game. It's hard to recapture the intensity of what just happened before this stupid commerical for Kentucky Friend Chicken (sorry, that is what KFC stands for, even if they now disown it the name) or Scott's lawn food. What possible studies have shown these marketing geniuses that inundating the viewing audience over and over with the same stupid commericals will make the product sell any better?

God, I hate commercials and the not-very-subtle attempts at behavior modification. I predict that, within the next 10 years, they will just figure out that they should be showing continuous commericals at the bottom of the screen, or in the corner, JUST BECAUSE THEY CAN AND BECAUSE SOME IDIOT MARKETING PERSON AT THESE CORPORATIONS WILL BUY THE COMMERCIAL TIME! Continuous commercials that you can't escape from if you want to watch the tube. At which point, TiVo becomes not as useful, as you cannot "fast forward" through them. They are on all the time!

I wonder if they will ever realize that they are already very close to saturation and the viewer's mind will just "tune out" the ads on a permanent basis. Any more and ads will become so much static that the mind just shuts out.

Or else gets a movie from NetFlix.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Ancient technology as exhibited by the Antikythera Mechanism.

One of the more egocentric views of the world, including past civilizations, that our Western Civilization holds to is that our technology is far superior to anything that has ever come before us. Yes, that is a true statement in many respects. Our technology never ceases to amaze. Our scientists, engineers, and technicians continue to find new, amazing methods to do just about anything the human imagination can come up with. We can now peer into the bizarre world of sub-atomic particles with the help of giant particle accelerators. We can see photos beamed directly back to us from the surface of a moon orbiting Saturn. We have devised clever of looking inside the human body in ever-increasing detail, without the obvious and dangerous use of surgery. And “amazing” isn’t limited to the realm of the esoteric. Advances in computer science, materials, robotics, communications and transportation have given us the ability to achieve things that were regarded as science fiction as little as a single generation ago.

However, this ever-increasing upward spiral of technological development has skewed the way we look at other societies that do not possess such technology. We regard them as “backward” or “ignorant”. Technology feeds our smug little egocentric view of the world. “We are the best that exist now and the best that has ever been.” Never mind that 95% of the population of the United States has absolutely no concept about how some of these devices actually function, much less be able to design them or repair them, or that many of these advances were actually made by people other than Americans.

This disdainful view of other societies isn’t limited to present day. Our view of ancient cultures is also one of conceit. “The Romans didn’t have electricity, so they must have been backwards. Likewise, the Greeks, Chinese, Egyptians, Mayans, etc., etc. Certainly, they made some large pyramids and very nice buildings with beautiful carvings and ornate columns. But really, technologically advanced, they were not.” We have been shown so many pictures of huge pyramids in Egypt since we were young that we just “roll over” the fact that we do not really understand how the ancient Egyptians actually built them, how the two-ton stones were transported, shaped and then placed on a structure rising hundreds of feet in the air within a tolerance of tenths of an inch. We are clueless about how the city of Machu Picchu in Peru was constructed at an altitude of 6000 feet by people that seemed not to have a written language, or how a Bronze Age culture transported the stones which make up Stonehenge over a distance of hundreds of miles. This list goes on and on: the Colossus of Rhodes, the Coliseum in Rome, Nan Madol in the Pacific. Even something as seemingly mundane as how ancient people constructed swords of Damascus steel is now beyond us.

None of these mysteries seem “immediate” enough to break into our complacent, self-satisfied view of our place at the top of the evolution of technology. They are all so familiar, we fail to comprehend that we don’t actually understand them!

However, on occasion, something is discovered that just makes us sit up and gape in astonishment. Such is the case of the Antikythera Mechanism. (See the picture at the top of this post.) It was discovered in the year 1903, in a Roman shipwreck off a Greek island of the same name. It was viewed as an oddity, given the nature of what remaining details could be seen. Concentric cogs and gears didn’t fit in with our understanding of that time period. Therefore, it was shuttled aside, forgotten until “rediscovered” in the 1970’s, when people started to realize how extraordinary this find was and how we must adjust our way of looking at ancient civilizations.

The following description of the device is from Wikipedia.

The Antikythera mechanism (Greek: O μηχανισμός των Αντικυθήρων transliterated as O mēchanismós tōn Antikythērōn) is an ancient mechanical analog computer (as opposed to most computers today which are digital computers) designed to calculate astronomical positions. It was discovered in the Antikythera wreck off the Greek island of Antikythera, between Kythera and Crete, and has been dated to about 150-100 BC.

The device is remarkable for the level of miniaturization and complexity of its parts, which is comparable to that of 18th century clocks. It has over 30 gears, with teeth formed through equilateral triangles. When past or future dates were entered via a crank (now lost), the mechanism calculated the position of the Sun, Moon or other astronomical information such as the location of other planets. It is possible that the mechanism is based on heliocentric principles, rather than the then-dominant geocentric view espoused by Aristotle and others. The heliocentric view proposed by Aristarchus of Samos (310 BC - c. 230 BC) did not receive widespread recognition, but provides for the possibility of the existence of such a system at this time.

The mechanism has 3 main dials, one on the front, and two on the back. The front dial is marked with the divisions of the Egyptian calendar, or the Sothic year, based on the Sothic cycle. Inside this there is a second dial marked with the Greek signs of the Zodiac. This second dial can be moved to adjust, with respect to the Sothic dial, to compensate for leap years.

The front dial probably carried at least three hands, one showing the date, and two others showing the positions of the Sun and the Moon. The Moon indicator is ingeniously adjusted to show the first anomaly of the Moon's orbit. It is reasonable to suppose the Sun indicator had a similar adjustment, but any gearing for this mechanism (if it existed) has been lost. The front dial also includes a second mechanism with a spherical model of the Moon that displays the Lunar phase.

There is reference in the inscriptions for the planets Mars and Venus, and it would have certainly been within the capabilities of the maker of this mechanism to include gearing to show their positions. There is some speculation that the mechanism may have had indicators for the 5 planets known to the Greeks. None of the gearing, except for one unaccounted gear, for such planetary mechanisms survives.

Finally, the front dial includes a parapegma (a precursor to the modern day Almanac) used to mark the rising and setting of specific stars. Each star is thought to be identified by Greek characters which cross reference details inscribed on the mechanism.

The upper back dial, is in the form of a spiral, with 47 divisions per turn, displaying the 235 months of the 19 year Metonic cycle. This dial contains a smaller subsidiary dial which displays the 76 year Callippic cycle. (There are 4 Metonic cycles within 1 Callippic cycle.) Both of these cycles are important in fixing calendars.

The lower back dial is also in the form of a spiral, with 223 divisions showing the Saros cycle. It also has a smaller subsidiary dial which displays the 54 year Exeligmos cycle. (There are 3 Saros cycles within 1 Exeligmos cycle.)

Practical uses of this device may have included the following:
- Astrology was commonly practiced in the ancient world. In order to create an astrological chart, the configuration of the heavens at a particular point of time is needed. It can be very difficult and time-consuming to work this out by hand, and a mechanism such as this would have made an astrologer's work very much easier.
- Calculating solar and lunar eclipses. However, the device would probably only have indicated days when eclipses might occur, and a more accurate calculation of the time of day would have to be done by hand.
- Setting the dates of religious festivals connected with astronomical events.
- Adjusting calendars, which were based on lunar cycles as well as the solar year.

Whatever the purpose of this device, its very existence is a rude slap in our collective faces regarding our “innate superiority” regarding all things technological. Common wisdom told us that machines of this complexity just didn’t exist in the ancient world. How could it be that the Greeks had a machine that rivaled anything that Europe produced in the 1800’s? Someone invented a computer that accurately predicted celestial movements and relationships over 100 years before the birth of Jesus. It boggles the mind, but only when viewed from within the egocentric bubble of our supposed superiority.

I also find it a bit ironic that the marvels of this fascinating bit of ancient technology are being unlocked with the assistance of modern technology, such as X-rays and CT scans.

As interesting as this device is by itself, a fascinating tangential thought is this. Discoveries in technological societies do not exist by themselves. They are almost always built on something that preceded them. The cell phones of today did not just spring out of nowhere. Alexander Graham Bell is first credited with sending recognizable voice patterns over a long distance via electrical signals. The invention of radio showed that these patterns could be sent without the use of a physical medium, such as copper wires. Vacuum tubes evolved into discrete transistors, which then spawned an entire revolution in microelectronics that continues unabated to this day. When these elements are combined, the culmination of all these developments, and others, over the past 100 years just happens to be a portable cellular phone that you can hold in the palm of your hand.

What were the predecessors of the Antikythera Mechanism? Engineers and technicians, not to mention the astronomers and mathematicians necessary to develop the astronomical knowledge behind the Mechanism, did not just develop their skills and knowledge overnight. What other astounding machines did the ancient Greeks have that we do not currently know about? Did this knowledge and technology continue to develop? What other amazing inventions did ancient civilizations produce that are now lost to us?

The irretrievable loss of knowledge is always rather sad to contemplate.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Valerie Plame Wilson WAS a covert CIA agent.

And she was outed, first by Robert Novak but confirmed by a lot of government officials, including Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, Armitage, and Ari Fleischer. She was outed for the sole purpose of trying to discredit a political critic of the administration’s handling of the Iraq war. Taylor Marsh has some GREAT writing about this.

"He did it."

Of course, Valerie Plame is talking about Robert Novak printing her name in his column. That's what her husband Joseph Wilson said when he came in on the morning Novak's column was published, July 2003. Today, Valerie Plame Wilson spoke in public before Rep. Waxman's committee, describing the day her husband came in and dropped the newspaper on the bed and said: "He did it."

When Rep. Dennis Kucinich questioned Ms. Plame, one answer jumped out. He asked if covert agents were identified very often. Plame said, not that I'm aware, especially not by their own government.


Rep. Diane Watson expressed propper outrage when she indignantly rebuffed notions that Plame only had a desk job. That seems to be the only thread on which the loyal Bushies, Scooter Libby and his puppeteer, Dick Cheney, are hanging their disgrace. That a vice president of the United States would play any part whatsoever in the outing of a C.I.A. covert agent is something I never dreamed we'd ever talk about. I never could imagine the cover of a C.I.A. agent would be outed over ideology and that either political party would play a part. There was a time when this was unthinkable. In the era of Bush, it is not only thinkable, but now a tragic, even potentially treasonous, part of history.

However, nothing could keep Republicans from spewing their venom and ignorance as to whether Valerie Plame was covert. Let us now put it to rest: Valerie Plame was covert. There is no excuse for Sean Hannity, Mort Kondracke, Robert Novak, Brit Hume and Victoria Toensing for casting doubt, except that their comments are politically motivated. Everything is political in the Bush White House, even the C.I.A.
We can never make up for what the Bushies did to Valerie Plame. Even speaking today Valerie Plame's testimony and the questions being asked were under strict guidelines, due to the open nature of the hearing. One thing is clear, as Rep. Elijah Cummings took great pains to point out.

Covert, classified or undercover? Classified wasn't used among the undercover agents. The videos of Valerie Plame speaking about it explains it all.

Rep. Paul Hodes brought up what Karl Rove told Chris Matthews, "Valerie Plame is fair game." Now imagine that it's not Valerie Plame, but another covert C.I.A. agent. Is anyone fair game? Or is it just people who get in the way of Mr. Bush? Is it just whistleblowers who have information proving the president lied in the SOTU speech?

Let's also remember that this whole event stemmed around Joseph Wilson deflating the Bush administration's case for war. Nothing is clearer.

There seems to be no means the Administration will not use to hurt those who disagree or who have knowledge that will harm the Administration. It's chilling when all the energy of the White House and the federal government are focused on private citizens, through the press. But when one of those people works as a classified C.I.A. agent working on WMDs it's especially shocking.

Finally hearing from Valerie Plame in her own words brings the whole sorry behavior from Bush administration into bright light. Congressman Waxman, my former representative, makes us all proud by holding these hearings. It gives you faith that democracy under the Democrats actually represents what our Founders had in mind. It's called checks and balances. It's called oversight.

But once again, let us never forget that the leaking of Valerie Plame's covert C.I.A. identity revolved around one subject, the case Mr. Bush and his Administration made for war. Joseph Wilson punctured that case. It launched the Bush administration into damage control that would end with the leaking of a covert C.I.A. operative's name in order to show the war whistleblower who was boss.

One final note, if Democrats weren't in the majority in Congress, Valerie Plame would never have been heard.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

How close have we really come to a fascist state in America?

The more we learn about how the Bush White House (including the subsidiary of Cheney’s OVP and his shadow intelligence agency), the more we understand how close we came to a complete meltdown of the American system of representative and democratic government that has been in place for over 200 years. We are still on the precipice, but at least now many people are paying attention and are not afraid to ask questions.

I don’t even know where to begin with highlighting what Bush and his cronies have either accomplished or attempted to accomplish in the years since Bush’s inauguration in 2001. But even an incomplete list like this makes it very clear to me that, without calling it by name, Bush and his minions and enablers have tried to do nothing less than change the type of government we have from a democracy to some flavor of fascist/totalitarian state.

- The liberal use of Presidential “Signing Statements”, in which Bush gives himself the power to ignore or interpret any laws that Congress passes, even though this position is not supported by any possible legal interpretation of the Constitution.

- The suppression of data that does not support the White House’s position, such as the case in the run-up to the Iraq war, and the secret dissemination of cherry-picked data which is seen to support their position. This include selective declassification of data, whose declassified status might be known to only three persons in the entire country.

- The tactic of destroying, on a personal level, all political opponents and critics, even if they happen to be a member of the Republican party. The Scooter Libby trial is a very recent, very illustrative example of how Dick Cheney was intent on not only discrediting Joe Wilson, but destroying him and his wife for no other reason than punishment for dare questioning the trumped up reasons we are now in Iraq.

- The makeover of the Department of Justice from an independent office into a purely partisan one, which does the bidding of the White House. The purge of political appointees in the positions of U.S. Attorneys that wewre not sufficiently partisan is a blatant example of this. Included in this is the new “paradigm” that it is acceptable for Republicans in power to lean on U.S. attorneys to do the bidding of the Republican party.

- FBI abuses in monitoring U.S. citizens, bypassing all laws regarding such activity. Even if this monitoring was done legally, at times it was very suspect, such as monitoring religious groups who were protesting the Iraq war that obviously posed no threat to the nation.

- The existence of a rubberstamp Republican-controlled Congress that enabled everything that the White House desired to do while obstructing all inquiries and oversight proposed by the Democrats, even though oversight of the Executive is one of the primary jobs of Congress.

- The use of all tactics possible to minimize and totally eradicate, if possible, the effectiveness and input of the Democratic party when there was a Republican majority in both Houses of Congress. This runs the gamut from the policy to never allow to the floor a bill introduced by a Democrat to small things, as not assigning a meeting room in which Democratic members of Congress can hold meetings.

- Liberal use of redistricting as a means to ensure a Republican majority, such as Tom Delay’s Texas.

- The expressed position of the White House and the Republican party that the supposedly independent press in America should actually use its power to be a cheerleader for the United States. The other side of the coin is the Republicans’ belief that the media should never criticize Bush or any action he takes, as it might “embolden” the enemy.

- The planting of fake “news stories” in the media, either by paid members of the media who do not disclose their interests in trumping up whatever subject they happen to be writing about. Additionally, the White House routinely uses “anonymous sources” to plant information in credible sources (such as Scooter Libby using Judy Miller to plant information about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction) and then quoting those self same stories in support of their argument.

- A subservient news media which sees its job, up until recently, as to pass along any information it gets from the White House without questioning its validity or the motive the White House might in disclosing such information.

- The final maturation of Fox News as an organ of the Republican party, whose aim is to manipulate stories and add political spin to ensure that each story maximizes gain to Republicans and attempts to humiliate Democrats while reaching millions of Americans. In other words, it’s job is to deliver propaganda.

- The existence of a very large, effective Republican “echo chamber”, whose self-appointed job it is to echo every Republican talking point that comes out, to “dry run” possible talking points, and to magnify each other, over and over, until an initial tiny squeak becomes the conventional wisdom of the day. This echo chamber is also used to shout down anyone who raises any objections or criticisms to their methods. See Ann Coulter, Mike Medved, Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh and a whole host of others of the same ilk.

- Torture has become a normal, legal tool to be used for whatever reason, even though Japanese military personnel were tried for war crimes for using those same tactics (such as waterboarding). Torture can now be done on behalf of the United States by third parties, such as Syria (who is on our potential “hit list”), Egypt, Saudi Arabia (who supplied 19 of the 9/11 hijackers) or private “contractors” (i.e., mercenaries for hire).

- The suspension of Habeas Corpus, even though the Constitution of the United States specifically states that Habeas Corpus cannot be suspended unless in times of invasion. Anyone the White House designates as an enemy can now be jailed for an indefinite period, without access to a lawyer or being shown the charges against him.

- The blatant appointments of cronies as a means of repaying political favors, even if those being appointed have no qualifications for the post. Examples include “Heckofajob Brownie” to head FEMA, a veterinarian as head of the department overseeing women’s health issues, and 23 year old relative of a political friend to head up the process of rebuilding the banking system in war-ravaged Iraq.

- The liberal use of scare tactics during election cycles, such as raising the “Alert Level” for possible terrorists attacks to Orange on 13 different occasions during the 2003 presidential campaign. Keith Olberman put together a good story that showed that almost every instance of this increase came immediately after some newsworthy event about Kerry or the Democrats, or to change the subject about some topic that the White House didn’t want discussed. At one point, three-year-old information about a possible hit on the NY financial district was used as justification for the jump to Orange.

- The suppression of scientific input for political reasons, usually by Bush or party appointees. An example is the editing of several NASA scientific reports by a 23-year-old Republican college dropout who somehow managed to get himself appointed to a NASA oversight post and who felt it was his job to suppress any discussion of global warming and to insert language to make it appear that any scientific conclusions were under some dispute.

- The use of voter suppression techniques and possibly outright manipulation of voting tallies in order to gain Republican wins. There have been attempts that have been proven, such as the New Hampshire phone jamming scandal and yet to be investigated thoroughly episodes involving intimidation of black voters in Florida and questions that have yet to be answered regarding Diebold voting machines that leave no auditable paper trail.

- The use of lobbyists, who represent the very people the government is attempting to regulate, to write laws regarding the regulation of those same companies, and then withholding the information from the public about who was involved.

- The sale of political “favors” by members of Congress, such as Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who had a specific price list of how much each type of favor would cost.

- The casual but liberal use of lying in public, sometimes under oath, when deemed helpful to Bush and the Republican party. This includes statements by Bush that anyone found being involved in leaking Valerie Wilson’s name as part of the effort to discredit her husband would be fired (Rove is still on the job with his Top Secret security clearance) and that Rumsfeld would not be replaced, made two before the 2006 midterm elections when Bush knew for certain that Rumsfeld would resign immediately afterwards. Then there are Scooter Libby’s lies in front of a Grand Jury and the FBI, for which he has just been convicted. And it appears that Alberto Gonzales, our so-called “Attorney General”, just let loose a big one while under oath in front of Congress. Lying is now the norm, without any misgivings or second thoughts.

There are many more. But what I have compiled here illustrates exactly HOW the Bush administration and his rapidly shrinking legion of followers do NOT “love freedom”. Or, if they do, I am hard pressed to figure out what exactly they mean. Freedom for just “their kind”, who think and act exactly like they do and everyone else be damned? Is that what they mean? Or is it even more unsubtle than that? “Winners get everything?” Personally, I think that is what Bush means when he speaks of freedom. He has not the slightest concept of how a democratic, representative form of government is actually supposed to work.

I know this. When I look at the Big Picture, and not just the myriad of individual scandals that seem to be cropping up on a weekly basis nowadays, I am scared. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that, if Bush and Cheney got to do exactly what they want without interference, somewhat like they have been doing in the last 6 years, our form of government that has served us so well since 1776 would be a thing of the past.

Here are a some good columns and stories worth reading.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Technology makes people stupid.

That’s my theory. I have no proof to back this up. I claim no special insights, other than direct observations about my fellow humans. And it may not be “stupid” as much as it might be things like “easily distracted”, “self-centered”, “lazy” and “impatient”. “Stupid”, although grammatically not correct for the concept I am trying to get across, is my way of lumping all those other terms, and more, into a single, all-encompassing, easily understood, high impact word. I think “stupid” works.

I am not certain where I think that the current technology overkill originates. Certainly, the constant pressure on industry to come up with yet one more “bright shiny thing” that becomes the next “must have” item on store shelves contributes to this. Corporations are flooding the market with high end, high profit gadgets of all types, marketing them to teenagers, young adults and other with expendable income at the ready. If you keep waving bright, shiny things in front of people long enough, they will eventually decide that they really need to have it. In other words, demand didn’t cause the product. The product came first, then the demand came in a rising storm for things that people didn’t even know existed, but yet had to have once they found out about them.

However, I also think that the consuming masses are just ripe for this type of manipulation of demand. People these days, young and not-so-young alike, desire to be distracted. They don’t want deep thought. They desire something new and different, something to impress friends and build up their own self-esteem by owning something that no one else has. This fits in very nicely with the overall trend of our society toward ever-flashier, ever-faster moving assault on our senses just to get our attention. Even something as simple as a razor (shaver, not the cell phone), with which one accomplishes the menial task of shaving whiskers from one’s face, must have an advertising campaign more worthy of Ferrari racing team than an cheap instrument with sharp edges that you use once a day for three minutes.

In other words, the consuming masses are already primed for the “newest”, “hottest”, “trendiest” (aka, NHT) item by the overall trends in society. It doesn’t take a marketing genius to figure out a way to see these mostly high-end, technologically advanced gee-gaws to the masses. Owning these items, whatever they might be, gives the owner a sense of satisfaction that they own the NHT item. It is an ego-stroking experience. At the same time, it gives the owner something to focus on, rather than the very real, very pressing issues that confront our society. “Don’t have time to worry about global warming! Gotta go home and set up my new flat screen, hi-def TV with Surround Sound ™!”

I think the full-scale explosion that is going on in hand-held, portable devices provides a good illustration. I can accept that a small, totally portable telephone that you can use whenever and wherever you happen to be is a wonderful advance. Great device. People are not always at home to take phone calls, especially not in these hectic days. Being able to take a phone call while waiting in an airport for your plane or while at your son’s Little League game is invaluable. However, just because they could do it, telephones constitute only a portion of what is now available. You can send a text message to someone. You can talk with them via a “walkie-talkie”. You can play video games. You can take and send pictures and short movies. You can download movie trailers from the latest Hollywood offering and view sports clips from yesterday’s big game. You can download your e-mail, send an e-mail, coordinate your schedule, ad infinitum. Phone calls? So 1990’s…..

My question is, do consumers actually NEED all these abilities? Or are they just more bright, shiny, distracting things? I once saw a scene that has stayed with me. It was a normal enough thing; just three young girls walking down the sidewalk after school one day. However, all three of them were yakking away on their cell phones. It just seemed to me that, if they were close enough to hang out with each other, they should maybe just talk among themselves. Perhaps? Or is the method of communication, i.e., the NHT cell phone, more important than what you are communicating and who you are communicating with? I have seem people, usually younger females, talk for long periods of time during a live sporting event. I was thinking, “Just why did you come to this game, since you seem so terribly uninterested in what is going on?”

And this is just the “telephone” part! I cannot, for the life of my, fathom why industry is busy constructing a hugely expensive, highly capable wireless system across the country so that people can download movie clips or sporting highlights. They could watch those at home, or at their nearest movie theater. Sure, I am being unfair, but only to a point. Many businesspersons use wireless connections for their laptops to actually do work while away from a desk-bound workstation. But a large percentage of the country’s very expensive, high-end, technological-dependent infrastructure seems to exist only so that 15 to 28 year olds can amuse themselves with very expensive, high-end, technological-dependent toys.

We’re hooked on technology. We have to have it, and we have to have the NHT, right now! I have heard second and third hand accounts, and read articles, about people who actually start suffering physical withdrawal symptoms and emotional anguish is they are not able to use their latest NHT device. Network down? Can’t check your e-mail? Full-blown crisis mode! It doesn’t seem to occur to people that they can wait until they are back at the office. The world is not going to come to an end if you can’t check your e-mail RIGHT NOW. Working people back in the 1980’s actually made do with typewriters and a hand held telephone that could crack a skull if you hit someone in the head hard enough with it, and we seemed to make it out of that decade O.K.

If religion is the opiate of the masses, as Karl Marx once pronounced, then technology seems to be a close second. Or, another way of looking at it might be more of Caesar’s “bread and circuses”. Lots and lots of nice, shiny, distracting things, so the population won’t see what is going on in plain sight if they would just pay attention to the magician’s other hand for a while.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Thoughts on how the Earth came to be capable of sustaining life.

This is about a bit of a theory that I have had for some time that puts together a lot of info from a lot of different topics that could explain the “Big Picture”. Why do we have a habitable planet when it appears that the odds, cosmologically speaking, are very long against it? When you step back and look at it in a dispassionate and objective way, it does appear that the Earth’s existence, in its present form, may represent a very unlikely occurrence.

I keep thinking that someone out there must have done this before. However, I have not quite seen it all assembled in this manner before.

Contrary to the process of normal scientific inquiry, I’ll start with my conclusion first. I’ll then explain how I got there.

Conclusion as Prologue

I don’t think that intelligent life is as prevalent out there in the universe that we might think it is. Certainly, given the immense size of the universe and the number of planets out there, something MUST have happened out there that resulted in a planet that resembles the Earth. But, I am thinking that the possibilities aren’t as high as some out there have proposed. Here is my reasoning.

A stable provider of light and energy

The first thing that we obviously need in order to concoct an environment friendly to life is a stable energy source. That is, of course, our Sun. Stars like ours are very common in the universe. However, so are many other kinds of stars. There are huge stars, such as Betelguese, which will live for many times the life of our Sun but whose surface temperature is little more than burning charcoal. There are tiny white dwarf stars which burn hot but have a relatively short lifetime. There are huge white hot stars, such as Rigel. There are all sorts of binary stars, which would make life difficult for planets to even exist, much less orbit the star in a stable orbit. There are variable stars, some of which oscillate in energy output by several orders of magnitude.

We must also have a stable local (galactically speaking) environment, free from harmful effects of such nasty, esoteric denizens of the universe, such as pulsars, quasars, x-ray bursters, etc.

To whit, the Earth does not exist by itself. The Earth exists within its own environment. In order for life to exist on this planet, we need a stable source of energy without any harmful interference from outside sources. With that accomplished, we can move on.

The habitable zone surrounding the Sun

The Earth is situated in an orbit around the Sun that lies within a relatively small window that would sustain life as we know it. Water is the key, of course. Without water, there would be no life as we know it. In our particular orbit, water is warm enough to remain liquid but yet, not hot enough to evaporate. Therefore, our Earth had to have formed within this small orbital window for to even allow a chance of life beginning. Also, the Earth had to be the right size and right density in order to maintain an thick (but not too think) atmosphere, once it had established one.

This habitable zone looks to extend somewhere between the orbit of Venus and the orbit of Mars. Any further closer to the Sun, and you have a baked ember of a planet like Mercury. Any further from the Sun, and you would have an iceball whose oceans are ice and whose atmosphere lies frozen on the ground. Fortunately, the Earth seems to reside in just the right place. We experience water in all three states (i.e., solid, liquid and gas). Life has been shown to be very resilient, as underwater hydrothermal vents teem with life and can withstand being frozen in the artic winters, only to be reborn during the spring and summer months. However, too much of either heat or cold would have doomed any aspiring life form on primordial Earth.

Where did the moon come from, and why is it important?

Why is the planet Earth the only one in the inner solar system that has a very large moon? Both Venus and Mars resemble the Earth, in a way. The size and distance from the Sun are all within some comparable parameters. Venus has no moon, and Mars has two small moons that probably don’t even deserve the really intriguing names with which they are endowed. Given those observations, one could conclude that something very unusual must have happened to the Earth back when the solar system was still a pretty dynamic place.

Most current theories regarding the formation of the Moon involve a collision between a proto-Earth and another Mars-sized planet or planetesimal. Computer simulations show that the only type of impact that would have resulted in enough material in an orbit that won’t fall back onto the Earth is a side-glancing blow. A direct hit would not have produced the “planetary pair” that we see today. The other theories, such as a planetary capture and both the Earth and Moon coalescing out of the same disk of material, don’t really stand up to computer simulations.

For more information on this theory, check out this link, and this one, and then this one.

It appears to me that, although nothing is certain in the areas of scientific theory, that the collision theory is the one that stands up best when trying to explain the system that we have right now. And if the state of Uranus is any indication, collisions of major sized bodies early in the formation of the solar system was not an unlikely thing to occur. How else does one go about explaining that Uranus is tipped on its’ side, with it’s axis of rotation pointing in the plane of the solar system disk? Something pretty darn big must have hit that planet to make that happen.

The role that the Moon played, and continues to play, in creating an environment that can sustain life is discussed below.

Plate tectonics, volcanism and the atmosphere

What is another feature that the Earth has that neither Venus nor Mars has? The answer is tectonic plates. Unlike the Earth, neither of those two planets seem to have a crust made up of large pieces. This points to something unusual in the Earth’s past that did not occur with the other two. This is one connection that I have not seen anyone else make before. I believe that it is not a giant leap of deductive reasoning to think that the same planetary impact that ultimately resulted in the Moon also shattered the Earth to the point that the crust broke into continent-sized chunks that are still with us today.

A direct outcome of the fact that the Earth has huge plates that float upon the Earth’s mantel and grind into each other is earthquakes and volcanoes. Yes, Mars has evidence of volcanoes; really big ones, in fact. But there is no evidence that any of Mars’ volcanoes are still active, and it certainly doesn’t have anything resembling the Earth’s “Pacific Rim Ring of Fire”, which contains a vast number of volcanoes, both active and dormant.

Volcanoes provide an excellent method of establishing a planetary atmosphere. Certainly, it’s very toxic at first. But even a toxic atmosphere establishes several things. One, it provides a basis for a constant energy exchange between the oceans and the atmosphere. It evens out the temperature around the globe, such that if one portion of the atmosphere becomes very hot or very cold, the law of thermodynamics rather insists huge extremes do not exist. Water is transported around the globe to places that normally wouldn’t see any water. It’s acts as a protective covering for the water that does occupies a large portion of the surface of the globe, such that it doesn’t all just evaporate into space and lost forever.

Of course, one form of life’s toxicity may be a fundamental requirement to another. High amounts of hydrogen in the atmosphere released by the volcanic activity enabled microbes to develop that consumed hydrogen and produced, as its waste product, free oxygen, which is one of the basic needs of our current form of life

Earth’s stable rotation

Another thing that the moon provides the Earth is a stabilizing force that helps keep the Earth in very stable rotation around its’ axis. The Earth rotates about its axis like a huge gyroscope. A gyroscope exhibits a number of behaviors including precession and nutation. If the Earth exhibited such behavior, the global climate would experience wild fluctuations, so much so that life would have had a difficult time to establish a toe-hold. I doubt life, during its very tenuous beginnings, would have fared well if its local climate were sub-tropical one year and arctic-like the next. Oh, it certainly may have, but I would imagine life would have had a much harder time of it without a stable local environment.

However, the Moon provides a giant “stabilizing force”, which forces the Earth’s to have a very stable rotation. This allows a very predictable, long-term environment to develop which would be infinitely more conducive to allowing life to develop than the one described above.

Tides and tide pools

There are still varying theories about how life actually came be on planet Earth. Did a soupy combination of organic materials spring to life on this planet? Were, somehow, life containing molecules deposited on the Earth from cosmic bombardments? However it happened, it is likely that life really was able to itself the interface between water and land. Tide pools provide a shelter from the direct effects of the ocean’s waves, while allowing in replenished water and nutrients on a regular basis.

From solstation.com: Bacteria formed microbial mats on land as early as three billion years ago. Fossilized remnants and other biochemical evidence from South Africa suggest that photosynthetic bacteria (primarily blue-green cyanobacteria, that may have included the ancestors of Chroococcidiopsis) may have colonized the wet surface of clay-rich soil during rainy seasons, but were blanketed by aerosol deposits laid down during subsequent dry seasons. Such mats may have formed in surface pools, water edges, and other wet spots on land (Press briefs from the NASA Astrobiology Institute of 2/5/01 and 11/29/00, and from the University of Pennsylvania).
The Moon is responsible for the regular tides in the ocean, which enables the life enabling tide pools to exist.

The magnetosphere

Another thing that the Earth has that Mars doesn’t, besides oceans, a thick atmosphere, plate tectonics, active volcanoes and a very large moon is a very large magnetic field surrounding the planet. In fact, of all the four inner, rocky planets in our solar system, the Earth is the only one with a large magnetic field. Given this rather statistically limited number of examples, it still must be assumed a magnetosphere is not a given for planets otherwise capable of harboring life (caveat: life “as we know it”).

Why is this important? Well, because our planet needs to be in rather close proximity to the Sun in order to receive the amount of energy necessary for life, we are then exposed to different type of hazard; the solar wind. The solar wind, which sounds harmless enough, is the violent stream of highly energized particles coming off of the sun’s corona. The radiation alone, if allowed to pass directly onto the Earth’s surface, would be enough to disrupt and even damage fragile organisms. As an illustration, all astronauts in the International Space Station are ordered into a very protected room where they cannot be harmed by the gamma rays that result whenever very large sunspot activity occurs.

However, with the Earth’s substantial magnetosphere as protection, we have an “umbrella” in place that protects the entire planet from these harmful rays. One need look no further than the Aurora Borealis (that is, the “Northern Lights”) to see this protective umbrella in place. All the highly charged particles are funneled north or south into the Earth’s magnetic poles. The interaction of these particles with themselves and with the Earth’s atmosphere can be seen as a brilliant curtain of light. While beautiful and awe-inspiring, the Aurora is rather a sideshow compared to the most beneficial aspect of the Earth’s magnetosphere. Without such a protective umbrella, the Earth may have lost all of its atmosphere, as well as all free water vapor (including the oceans) to the unrelenting blast from the solar wind over the course of millions of years. The Earth would look like a bigger version of Mars; lifeless (as far as we know) and water only exists in protected locations such as the poles, in the perpetual shadows of crater walls, and underground.

If the Earth had no magnetic field, it is doubtful Earth would have been able to harbor such abundant life.

The giant gas planets as protectors

One other destabilizing force in the rise of life on Earth is having your global climate very suddenly changed due to impacts of huge meteors and comets. As most laypeople know, one of the leading theories about why dinosaurs are extinct is that the Earth was struck by a large comet, meteor, or asteroid, and this caused both short and long term effects that altered the dinosaur’s habitat so significantly that they were not able to continue as a species. This theory is still under debate, and I won’t go into that here. But I think it is safe to say that life would have had a very difficult time of it if faced with disruptions of this magnitude occurred with any sort of regularity. The amount of energy released during one of these collisions is enormous, as we witnessed in 1994 when multiple fragments of Comet Shumaker-Levy 9 slammed into the planet Jupiter. If the Earth were to sustain one of these types of impacts, as an wild guess, every 10,000 years, Earth’s entire ecosystem would essentially be “starting over” each time.

Therefore, it is very indeed fortunate that our solar system is equipped with a giant vacuum cleaner, in the form of four gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) that operate in the outer portion of our system to sweep the solar area clear of most (but not all) dangerous rogue floating space bodies. Without these impassive hulking planets to act as our protector, Earth might still be experiencing a pounding that all planets and moons experienced during the formation of the solar system. One need look no further than the surface of the Moon or the moons of Jupiter and Saturn to see the violent history of planetary formation recorded in their scarred and broken surfaces.

Jupiter’s stable orbit.

It is also a very fortunate thing that these same gas giants are in a stable orbit around our Sun. This does not appear to be a given. There are something in the excess of one hundred extra-solar planets that have been discovered orbiting around other stars. Given the limitations of our detection capabilities, scientists and astronomers, so far, have been limited to detecting very large planets, on the order of Jupiter. However, what has startled astronomers has been the fact that many of these planets appear to be orbiting their parent star in a very close orbit. That is a mystery that has yet to be explained. No theory of planetary formation has yet come up with a explanation of how a large gas giant could have evolved in that close proximity to a star. The material which makes up the planet should have been subsumed by the star’s accretion disk during the star’s formation. So, how did those huge gas-giant planets find themselves in such a close orbit to their suns?

One theory that seems to explain this seeming mystery is as follows. If the planet could not have formed that close to its sun, then it didn’t. So, how did it get there, there? Applying either Occam’s Razor or Sherlock Holmes (whichever suits), the planet therefore must have moved there. Where did it come from? From a decaying orbit much further from the star, where it could have formed in the same way that Jupiter and Saturn formed in our solar system. However, for whatever reason (but that reason seems to be somewhat prevalent in the universe, based on the number of examples astronomers have discovered) the planet, over the eons, had a decaying orbit, which caused the planet to slowly spiral inward to where it is now in close proximity to its sun.

This goes without saying that it would be catastrophic to the rest of the planets in our solar system, if Jupiter or Saturn decided on following the same course. Any one of the four gas giants would gobble up any other planet, large or small, that lies between it and the sun. Therefore, it is indeed fortunate for us that all four outer gas giants stayed put in their own stable orbits after they formed. Otherwise, they would have been vacuuming up Earth, Mars and Venus instead of just cleaning up stray comets and asteroids.

Conclusions revisited

Given all these rather amazing circumstances surrounding the Earth and its neighborhood, I can only conclude that we are very fortunate to have such a pleasant and nurturing environment in which we live out our collective mortal existence. If you remove any single one of the circumstances described above from the history of our solar system, the Earth today would be a drastically different place than it is and may not have been capable of sustaining life. The Earth might resemble the hellish planet of Venus, or the dry, cold and airless planet Mars, instead of the relative Garden of Eden it does now, or may not even exist at all.

Of course, “scratching the surface” doesn’t even come close to describing our limited observations about the universe. There are millions of galaxies out there, each containing billions of stars. That’s a lot of opportunities to roll the equivalent of two thousand “snakes eyes” in a row while playing dice, which it looks comparable to what occurred in the history of our solar system. All the necessary and sometimes downright unusual events necessary to provide us with this environment conducive to life and protecting us from all the harsh conditions that exist in the universe occurred. How likely is that? Not very likely, in my mind. That is why I said, at the beginning, that intelligent life in the universe may not be as high as some have supposed.

Now, as to how these developments all lined up in just the right way, some people would use this as evidence of a Devine Influence. Nothing this complicated or unlikely could have ever come about on its own. That is a very similar argument many people make when discussing evolution vs. creationism. The odds look impossibly long for it to have happened (i.e, 2000 snake eyes in a row), so therefore, “someone” must have been behind it. “In the Beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth.”

A competing concept is sometimes referred to as “the Theory of Serendipity”. In short, it goes something like this. “Because we are here, it must have happened that way.” To me, that sounds more plausible than hypothesizing a “Creator” who concocted the entire universe but yet, somehow, exists outside of this observable universe. Someone has to win the lottery eventually. Why couldn’t it have been us?

Either way it ultimately came down, what we have right now is a planet that is warm, friendly, protective and nurturing which provides us our many needs, both real and imagined. We should treat it much better than we are currently doing. It may not be very long before it comes back to haunt us in a very big and unpleasant way.

Friday, March 02, 2007

The population bottleneck and confidence in the scientific method.

I have been reading some material and watching several shows on the Discovery Channel (I think) about the human population bottleneck. Here is what Wiki says about it first:

A population bottleneck (or genetic bottleneck) is an evolutionary event in which a significant percentage of a population or species is killed or otherwise prevented from reproducing, and the population is reduced by 50% or more, often by several orders of magnitude. Population bottlenecks increase genetic drift, as the rate of drift is inversely proportional to the population size. They also increase inbreeding due to the reduced pool of possible mates (see small population size).

A slightly different sort of genetic bottleneck can occur if a small group becomes reproductively separated from the main population. This is called a founder event.

Human mitochondrial DNA (inherited only from one's mother) and Y chromosome DNA (from one's father) show coalescence at around 70,000 years ago. In other words, all living humans' female line ancestry and male line ancestry trace back to a small number of people alive at that time. However, such coalescence is genetically expected and does not indicate a population bottleneck, because most human ancestors are neither female line nor male line ancestors (for example, one's mother's father's ... mother's father). A population bottleneck would only be indicated if DNA coalesced more recently than genetically expected.

The Toba catastrophe theory suggests that a bottleneck of the human population occurred ca. 70,000 years ago, positing that the human population was reduced to a few thousand individuals (and possibly as few as 1,000 individuals) when the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia erupted and triggered a major environmental change.

In 2000, a Molecular Biology and Evolution paper suggested a transplanting model or a 'long bottleneck' to account for the limited genetic variation, rather than a catastrophic environmental change.

The upshot is this. By examining human DNA taken from numerous examples from around the globe, scientists have concluded that the human population, about 70,000 years ago, almost went extinct. The reasons for this are speculative. However, the dates line up very well with the eruption of the Toba super volcano in Indonesia. Eruptions of that type are suspected of having long term, disastrous effects on climate at the global level.

As interesting as that is to me, that isn’t what I want to talk about here. I would like to address this concept of the population bottleneck. I am astounded that, by examining human DNA, researchers can come to the conclusion that the human population dwindled down to perhaps as few as several thousand people.

First of all, I do not understand what the researchers are actually looking at to make that conclusion. Further, from my understanding, these same researchers have concluded that this small population lived somewhere in the vicinity of eastern Africa, such as modern-day Kenya.

The second point that I do not understand (given that their hypothesis is correct), is how anyone would know what the world’s population of human breeding stock (let’s be honest, that’s what we are talking about) looked like on the OTHER side of the bottleneck. Given that the breeding population, at some point, reached that very low number, how do researchers know that there was ever any significantly greater numbers than that? The concept seems, to me, to be similar to the cosmological Big Bang. By the very nature of the event, all evidence of what the universe was like before the Big Bang has been destroyed. No conclusions about what existed prior to the event can be reached by using the scientific method.

However, this is where my belief in the scientific method comes in. I know, for a fact, that what these scientists and researchers are doing isn’t just a bunch of strung together, unsupported opinions and conjecture. The papers that have been published on this subject have been subjected to rigorous peer review. I know next to nothing about human genetics. However, I am confident that the people doing the research are following the procedures and that their conclusions that they have reached are valid. They are not necessarily “true”, but they have been subjected to rigorous scrutiny and competing theories that would explain the observed results have been evaluated. Therefore, I have no problem in accepting this hypothesis, even though this is nowhere near my area of expertise. I think this is a fascinating area of inquiry. It says that the human race may be very, very fortunate to be here at the present time.

This is why I think what the Fundamentalist Christians are doing with regard to raising suspicions about any scientific conclusion they don’t like is so damaging. When flagrantly dismissing very well founded scientific theories such as evolution, the age of the earth, the age of dinosaurs, and global warming, they are stating that opinion is more important than conclusions reached by the scientific method. If someone comes up with theory that has been arrived at with meticulous methods by trained scientists specializing in that field, you are free to discount it if that theory conflicts with your own prejudices and pre-formed opinion. We now have a very large percentage of the population in this country that has no idea how the scientific method works and seems to equate it to astrology.

If we accept this position, then we are opening up ALL current knowledge to being overridden. We would “know” nothing, and all disputes between opposing parties would be relegated to seeing who can shout the loudest. You cannot be that selective, where you accept scientific findings for something you agree with, but condemn other scientific findings that you don’t agree with that were reached by the very same methodology!

Aside from all the other hazards that this country faces at this time, we are in grave danger of becoming a laughing stock in the world. We will be passed up by the less-opinionated technological societies of India, China, Japan, and countless others. We will be unable to learn and progress, as we will never want to learn anything new.

This, to me, is the current face of the extreme right-wing fundamentalists. It appears to me that they would like us to go back to the Dark Ages.

O.K, not to say that I was prescient or anything like that…..

Here a column by David Ignatius of the Wapo that says, in a much better way than I just did.

The scientific debate about whether there is a global warming problem is pretty much over. A leading international group of climate scientists reported last month that the evidence for global warming is "unequivocal" and that the likelihood it is caused by humans is more than 90 percent. Skeptical researchers will continue to question the data, but this isn't a "call both sides for comment" issue anymore. For mainstream science, it's settled.

The question now is what to do about global warming. This is a political problem more than a scientific one. The solutions (if we can agree on any) will require political will and imagination -- and also pain. That was my only reservation about the Oscar night celebration of Al Gore's leadership on this issue. The gowns and black ties and the celebrity back-slapping made it look like dealing with global warming will be fun, a walk down the red carpet. But it's more likely to be about catastrophe and how to share the pain.

These issues come into focus in a startling new report by futurist Peter Schwartz. He turns the usual discussions upside down: Rather than starting with detailed estimates of climate change (how much temperatures will increase; how much sea levels will rise; what new diseases will be spawned), he looks instead at systems that already are vulnerable to such stresses.

What Schwartz discovers with his stress-testing makes climate change even scarier: The world already is precarious; the networks that maintain political and social order already are fragile, especially in urban areas; the dividing line between civilized life and anarchy is frighteningly easy to breach, as the daily news from Iraq reminds us. We look at the behaviors of butterflies and migratory birds as harbingers of climate change. But what about early effects on human beings? "The steady escalation of climate pressure will stretch the resiliency of natural and human systems," writes Schwartz. "In short, climate change pushes systems everywhere toward their tipping point."

Schwartz's report, "Impacts of Climate Change," was prepared by his consulting group, Global Business Network, for a U.S. government intelligence agency he doesn't identify. The text of the report is available at the online discussion forum PostGlobal ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/postglobal). Here's a brief trek through the ravaged landscape Schwartz describes.

A first set of disasters waiting to happen involves stressed ecosystems. Human actions -- deforestation, overfarming, rapid urbanization -- have created special vulnerabilities to catastrophic natural events that are likely as the climate changes globally. In an interview, Schwartz cited the example of Haiti, which because of deforestation and loss of topsoil is "an ecosystem at the edge." A prolonged drought or a devastating hurricane could tip Haiti over that threshold -- and produce a refugee crisis of tens of thousands of boat people fleeing a devastated country.

Or take the problem of rising sea levels: Climate scientists are uncertain how fast the icecaps will melt and the seas will rise. But in Bangladesh, where millions of people live at or near sea level, even a small increase could produce a catastrophe. In a severe monsoon, 60 million to 100 million people could be forced to flee inundated areas, Schwartz warns, producing "the single greatest humanitarian crisis we have ever seen."

Lack of water may be as big a problem as flooding. Schwartz notes that more than 700 million people now live in arid or semi-arid areas. Climate change could tip this balance, too, producing severe water shortages and even "water wars." Tens of millions of people may become water migrants. The world's feeble political systems can't cope with existing migration patterns, let alone this human tide.

And finally, there is the problem of maintaining social order in a stressed world. You don't have to go to Baghdad to see how quickly the social fabric can be shredded; just look at New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The stresses come in part from rapid urbanization. Schwartz notes that in 1900, one in 20 people lived in cities; today it's about half, and the percentage is rising fast. Without strong and supple governments, this could become a world of vigilantes and militias, desperate to control scarce resources.

The big problems in life aren't the ones that hit you by surprise but the ones you can see coming. That's surely the case with climate change: We can measure it, we can imagine its catastrophic effects. But can we do anything to stop it? If we let ourselves visualize how bad it could get, as Schwartz does in this report, will we make changes that might reduce the disaster? That's the real stress test: It's coming at us. What are we doing about it?