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(1/31/10)  Comments are Welcome

Why is there such a "debate" about Global Warming? Well, first of all, there isn't much of a debate: according to a Pew Research Center Report July of 2009, 84% of scientists say the earth is getting warmer because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels. However, more than a third of the public surveyed " says that scientists do not generally agree".

Why so much skepticism?  A large part is that goes against the idea, most famously stated by Laplace, that the world is deterministic, i.e. that if a supreme intelligence would fully understand the scientific laws, then "nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present to its eyes."  In the past, scientists have ignored small errors because the belief was that small errors would tend to become insignificant, and that the degree of precision in the measurements would lead to the correct answer, to the same degree of precision. 

Book: Introduction to System Dyanmics

In fact, the study of climate is only one example of the field of "system dynamics", of analyzing the interactions between different parts of an active system.  Oddly enough the field arose in Photo of Jay Forrestor two different places at the same time: Jay Forrester, currently a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, is noted as the founder of the field, used to study organizational, economic, and political interactions. 

Professor Forrestor's original background was in electrical engineering; he worked on servo-systems in the 1940's.  But in the '50s he moved to the study of feedback loops in social systems.

At the same time, Ilya Prigogine, a Belgium physicist and chemist was working on the same ideas, but in thermodynamics. In the 1955 he published a book on his work, An Introduction to Thermodynamics of Irreversible Processes.  In Book: The End of Certainty, 1977, by Ilya Prigogine1977 he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work.  In his 1997 book, The End of Certainty, Prigogine contends that determinism is no longer a viable scientific belief.

Right now, scientists are caught in trying to understand climate science as a traditional science with predictive qualities, but the feedback loops which amplify effects of interactions may make this impossible; an entirely different approach may be required.  The mathematics are key, but not well-defined or understood.  Understanding the different rates of change in a system is one key factor:  If you have one component with its own rate of change interacting with another component, what happens can vary significantly depending on the ability of the first system to "recover" from the interaction (i.e. the differences between the two rates, as well as their size). 

A simple example is a water wheel.  Maybe you have been at a water park where there is a bucket filling with water and a hole at the bottom to drain the water, putting out a steady stream.  If the rate of water going into the bucket is slightly higher than the rate out through the hole, eventually the bucket will fill up, tip over, and a huge cascade of water will send everyone shrieking. 

YouTube Video_CornStarchPoolOr take cornstarch.  (yes, regular cornstarch).  Add some water (it doesn't really dissolve, but instead is "suspended").  Pull your finger through it.  If you pull your finger slowly, the mixture behaves like any liquid: your finger moves easily through the mixture.  However, if you go fast, it behaves like a solid!  This is known as a non-Newtonian Fluid. 

What's going on?  Well, the cornstarch molecules are fairly large, and have a certain rate at which they can move out of the way of your finger.  If you go too fast, the "rate" of your moving finger exceeds the rate of realignment, and the mixture is entirely different. 

When you have systems that have lots of components, each with their own rate, it is very complicated.  What is more imporPhoto of TV show "Daniel Boone"tant is what happens (like the cornstarch example) if one (or more) of the rates changes: Everything is different. 

Climate science is an example of the part of science that we always ignored.  As Professor Kerry Emanuel says "It is a frontier science." 

It is just like quantum mechanics at the beginning of the 20th century.  Built on ideas by a few "pioneers" in the 1800s, it solidified into solid and accepted mainstream physics by the work of youngsters such as Albert Einstein (b.1879), Neils Bohr (b.1885), Erwin Schroedinger (b. 1887), Louis de Broglie (b.1892), Wolfgang Pauli (b.1901), Werner Heisenberg (b. 1901), Paul Dirac (b.1902) -- all of whom were publishing by their early twenties, and all of whom had received a Nobel Prize in Physics by the mid-1930's.

Here we are at the beginning of the 21st century.  With some 20th century pioneers to build on, it's just waiting for you!

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