Thursday, April 19, 2012

Rambling Thoughts

There was a visitor to the pond a few days ago – a diving duck.  It looked like a juvenile, with mostly gray feathers, and a black stripe around the middle of its bill.  When I stepped outside it would dive then surface in another part of the pond.  I checked the bird book to see if I could identify it but none of the adult birds had a bill like that.  Was it part of a group that stopped on the way north, then got left behind?  It was here for two days and I haven’t seen it since.   Hope it found its way.

The freakish warm weather in mid-March caused many trees to leaf out way too early.  I’m noticing damage to a number of trees after a hard frost the second week of April.  The Black Tupelo that shades the back deck is showing a lot of leaf burn.  Many of the tulip poplars show similar damage.  It was the warmest March on record in this region.  I don’t think the leaf damage is anything that a healthy tree cannot overcome. 
I consider myself fortunate to have gotten a second chance in life.  I worked as a carpenter most of my working life, with brief attempts at door-to-door sales, and by my forties my back was telling me that working construction was no longer possible.   I got admitted to the Indiana-Purdue regional campus in Indianapolis and began exploring options.
After a few semesters trying different courses I settled on a major in chemistry, thinking that a degree in a technical area offered the best chances of getting a job.   It was probably better that I had no idea what I was in for.  Most of the credits for electives transferred from my first attempt at college when I was in my twenties, leaving the core math and science courses.  There was calculus and differential equations, a prerequisite for the courses in physics, physical chemistry, and quantum mechanics.  I went on to get a masters in organic chemistry then a job as a research chemist at a pharmaceutical company.
It was a lot of hard work.  You have to like science and have some smarts, but except for those really gifted few it boils down to hours and hours of hard work to wrap one’s mind around the concepts.  I think I was lucky to go back and take a science curriculum, because it opened my eyes to another world.  Without the distractions of youth I developed a real appreciation for the way science comes together.  I began to see a bigger picture that I would never have seen in my twenties.  Like the way Planck’s constant, which relates to how energy is quantized at the atomic level, kept showing up in the 19th and 20th centuries to describe different phenomena. 
I began to appreciate the way science of something develops, like a house built one brick at a time.  At first the researchers may have no clue as to what the house looks like, only some ideas, but over time as more and more bricks are added the overall structure comes into focus.  Quantum mechanics revised our view of the atom, and it was hard for many to accept since it described an electron as both a particle and a wave.  It took much of the first half of the 20th century for quantum theory to gain acceptance but ultimately the evidence was overwhelming.  And now things like magnetic resonance imaging and LCD screens could not be developed without an underpinning of quantum theory.
As one of my professors said to me once about research:  You go where the science takes you.   Like a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces already in place make the places for the remaining pieces easier to find.  
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t understand climate science, that’s not my area.  I have a real appreciation for how difficult this discipline is, and the amount of dedication it takes to do research in this area.  Climate science requires a mastery of physics, chemistry, statistics, meteorology, geology.  In short it’s a science that requires one to put together all the sciences, a talent a run-of-the-mill hack like myself doesn’t have, and it really takes total dedication.  So I don’t spend time trying to come up with a grand verdict on climate change.  I just don’t have the background. 
As a scientist I find it unlikely that climate scientists as a body have set out to create a bogus peer-reviewed theory in order to (choose one):  1) Make themselves filthy rich as part of an evil grand plan  2) Conspire to perpetuate their own careers  3) March us all into green communes and create a new world order.  That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of egotistical self-promoting individuals among scientists.  There are.  But ultimately the research goes where the science takes it.  The peer-reviewed process insures that.  And where the science has taken climate scientists is this:  human-caused global warming is a reality.        
Whenever I have the stomach to look at the work of global warming deniers, including some scientists, one thing stands out.  Every study, every opinion piece starts from the same place:  They don’t want to believe that global warming is real, and they search for bits of information that will support their view.  That is not science.  If you follow the money you will also find that many deniers are funded by the fossil fuel industry.  I don’t think that is a coincidence.
At one time scientists were put on the cover of Life magazine.  Now they are demonized.  The Virginia attorney general went so far as to attempt to criminalize climate scientists, an attempt that was practically laughed out of the Virginia Supreme Court.  Repression of scientists is an action that is more consistent with a police state than a democracy.  The politics of the study of global warming has overwhelmed the science.  More so than any other country in the world, America is in deep denial of not only global warming but the amount of fossil fuels that remain.  I guess too many of us are too engaged with American Idol and reality TV to come to grips with reality.  We prefer to live a fantasy world, one where the concepts of finite resources and science simply don’t apply. 


kitsapFG said...

Enjoyed reading about your change in career direction, the hard work of getting a science based education, and how all those experiences bear on how you see the world now.

Your discussion of the heightened efforts to repress scientific based conclusions is well expressed. Every generation of humans has had some element of pressure that is brought to bear on "reasoned thinking" because it is dangerous to those that would have us base decisions on dogma or idealogy. I think what makes me particularly sad about it in this day and age though, is that America's love of exploration and science is what placed us at the forefront of so many technologies and made us a force to be reckoned with in the world order of things. This current aggressive campaign against science and scientists feels something akin to the inquisition. Conform or else. As a society we seem to have a growing front of people that would like us regress to the bad old dark ages of mankind.

gardenvariety-hoosier said...

Kitsap - Yes I think we are at a crossroads. We will either fall back into ignorance and superstition or get over this and move on. I hope it's the second option.

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