October 26, 2004

Hansen speaks out, again

During the very hot summer of 1988 James Hansen, Director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) sat before a panel of members of Congress and announced, with the authority of his position, that global warming had arrived. By that time Hansen, who is one of our planet's leading climate scientists, was convinced that the trend in our planet's average temperature was up and that Human activity was at least part of the issue. He understood that there were uncertainties, but in his estimation, they were small enough to warrant his confidence. In many ways that testimony launched the global warming debate continues to hog tie political action on this front.

Hansen's team at GISS has been working on the details of how Earth's climate system responds to changes in the amount of heat it holds and to changes in how that heat is distributed in space. He is a careful scientist and I pay close attention to what he says. He is not always easy to understand, but he does appreciate his responsibilty as a scientist to communicate what he knows.

He is about to do something that could make another splash.

Andrew Revkin reports in today's NYT that Jim Hansen is going to make a speach tonight at the University of Iowa in which he will reiterate the importance of coming to terms with climate change, argue that the Bush administration is at best dragging their feet with respect to what the US could and should be doing, and most dramatically, he plans to claim that the Administrator at NASA told him not to talk about the impacts of human activities on the climate system.

Hansen's actions stir up a huge number of questions. The ones that jump to mind first are:
Is the "don't talk about it" bit of his story true?
There is a he said, she said element to the story. Of course NASA leadership deny that they told one of their leading scientists not to talk about bits of his work that are politically sensitive. But in some ways that doesn't matter; if Hansen thinks that he has been instructed not to talk about his work, notions of academic freedom have been trampled upon. But that too puts us on shifting sand. What if Hansen is overly sensitive? I believe NASA's rejoinder along the lines "we never told him not to do the work" but that leaves unsaid "we just told him not to talk about it." etc.
What is the proper relationship between science and politics?
Many (most) scientists would like to think that their science is politically neutral. And perhaps it is on a day to day basis. But the overall distribution of the kinds of science we do and the distribution of the benefits, and losses, is a political decision.

In the past I have had to manage bits and pieces of the relationship beween Columbia and GISS. I know that Hansen and his team can be loose cannons. I don't have an answer to whether what he about to do it a good thing or a bad thing. I do wonder whether Hansen is politcally astute or politically naive.
Evidence of the former,
How is it that Revkin is writing about a speach that Hansen is planning to give at the University of Iowa this evening?
Evidence of the latter,
Did he really think that people would read the black soot stuff closely enough to correctly understand its implications?

This issue deserves alot more attention - I will have to come back to it later...

October 24, 2004

Scientific and Engineering Failure

Not long ago, the Genesis spacecraft came tumbling back to Earth. It didn't go entirely as planned:

Everything had gone pretty well up to that point, but the dramatic "Catch by the Hollywood Stuntmen" failed, not because they missed, but because the parachutes on the spacecraft failed to open. The impact shattered the somewhat delicate plates that had been sieving the voids of space for the last few years.

The question immediately became, "Was the mission a success or a failure?" That question is followed immediately, at least in my mind, by questions of what would determine success. My first cut analysis would be the following. 1) a clear engineering failure; 2) based on the apparent success at recovering samples from the shattered plates, a likely scientific success.

But that is an overly simple analysis. First of all, with the exception of the last little bit, the spacecraft performed quite well. It spent three years following a wierd path through the solar system. It deployed its sampling mechanisms and collected about 10e20 ions, that is individual atoms, bits of matter, that have been spit out of the sun. Not bad really.

Things went wrong on the engineering front with re-entry. And at the time of this writing it looks as if the problem was that the switches that were meant to deploy the parachutes were installed backwards (this interpretation from The Economist, a more official report blames "a design error that involves the orientation of gravity-switch devices"). (Nature also reported on the switch problem...).

Success of the science mission depends upon the ability of scientists to extract new understanding of our solar system from the samples that the spacecraft collected. The Hollywood Stuntmen that were supposed to catch the spacecraft by the parachute were employed because there was great concern that the thing not crash into the ground because of the fragility of the sampling plates. So things didn't look good for scientific success at first. It now appears that samples will be able to be recovered, identified and useful.

So now I would summarize as follows: 1) with the exception of the parachute bit, which clearly was a cock-up, the engineering was pretty good; 2) the science also looks like it is going to tell us something along the lines of what was proposed years ago.

But both of those are hedges, to the Real Question, which is - Was the Genesis Mission a success? And despite the basically happy endings, I would argue that in important ways (beyond the parachutes), the mission failed. It seems to me that "parachutes fail to open" is an obvious late stage scenario. And the importance of considering this option is highlighted by the initial despair on the part of the scientific team. How is it that such an obvious possibility with such a disasterous implication relied on the correct installation of nearly symmetric switch the size of a pencil eraser with no backup?

My guess is that the scientists and the engineers weren't talking to each other as much as they should have been. And that is the real failure of the mission. Despite the decent recover on the part of the science team.

A bit more on the ALCS series. The "post-season" modifier is indeed irrelevant. Going 4 straight to win a best of 7 series has only happened on two other occaisions in professional sports, both in hockey (now isn't that interesting, are the statistics of hockey streaks different than baseball?).

October 21, 2004

Naive thoughts on Baseball

It turns out that there are a fair number of Red Sox fans in my neighborhood. I know becuase I could hear them cheering tonight. The last time I remember such an auditory signal with respect to a sporting event was when the Giants won the Super Bowl, whenever that was. The time before that was when NC State won the NCAA championship sometime in the mid-1980s (note that at that time I lived in Raleigh, not NYC).

For those of you who don't know, I live in Washington Heights in Manhattan. As I did until tonight, you might expect this to be a Yankees bastion but note: 1) the region of NYC that I live in has the largest Dominican population outside of Republica Dominica; 2) in thanking the fans of the Red Sox Nation, one of the executives listed places, Boston, California and the Dominican Republic; 3) Manny Rameriz grew up not too far from where I live (in NYC terms, "not too far" is measured in city blocks); 4) Pedro Martinez is also from the DR...

Perhaps more to the point with respect to this blog, the Red Sox completed tonight what no team in baseball has been able to do in post-season history, recover from being 3 games down in a 7 game series. Baseball being a game of statistics, I am wondering about this fact.

First of all, does the "post-season" history modifier matter. Are there examples in baseball history of teams going 4 straight to win a 7 game series in the regular season? I expect not, primarily because teams don't (rarely?) play 7 games in a row in the regular season.

Second of all, what are the statistics of baseball streaks like? Are they uncorrellated like coin tosses. Think about this, 3 consecutive coin tosses have yielded heads, what is the probablity that the next toss will be heads? (see A1 below). In baseball terms this would mean that the likelihood of winning and particular game is independent of whether you won or lost the previous game. It also means that the chances of a streak of length N is 1/2eN, so in an uncorrellated baseball universe the chances of winning 4 straight would be 1/16, not all that long odds in a sport that has a history of more than a century.

ahh but, that is more like the likelihood of sweep, doesn't the fact that the long suffering underdogs have lost 3 in a row (1/8 in a purely random world) have anything to do with it? I would say yes - it does suggest that the coin may be biased. That is that the chances of tails on the next toss are better than 50 - 50, in which case the odds of 4 in a row go down pretty fast. (if in fact after 3 games the odds are 75 -25, then the likelihood of 4 in a row is like 1/64).

Alternatively what if the chances of winning the next game depends on the outcome of the previous game. Statistics like that have a name that I can't drag up at the moment and I certainly can't write down. It opens a can of worms as well. If you won the last game is it more or less likely that you will win the next game? If you have won the previous 3 games what is the likelihood? The cool thing about baseball is that if you had the time and inclination, you could figure all this out. (If you do please let me know! I have the inclination, but not the time.)

The Red Sox and the Yankees are incredibly evenly matched these days. They had the two best records in the American League this year. That is the second place team in the American League East (Boston) had a better record than the winning teams in the other two divisions. Before tonight they had played each other 50 times in recent history and each won 25 games. The difference in their run scoring was 2 (I am quoting Tyler Kepner of the NYTimes (sorry can't be bothered with the link tonight) - Tyler didn't say which way it went, but given that fact and his allegiance, I am guessing it was advantage Boston.

OK - it is late, I am out of gas. Any thoughts on the probablity that the Red Sox will win the World Series?

A1 - 50%

October 15, 2004

Hydrogen economy

I think that I have written about the likelihood that we will burn a whole bunch of coal in the future, but if I have I can't find the post. Maybe it was in my forthcoming Energy & Environment piece (a link to that when it is available).

Anyway - one of the things that is often not mentioned, but that is increasinly recognized, is that you have to make the hydrogen and that takes energy and that energy has to come from somewhere. And then we are back to coal. Unless we can do it with renewables...

Nature reports a recent article that argues that wind power will be insufficient to provide all of the hydrogen that a fully developed hydrogen economy will require. Rather than an argument against moving toward hydrogen, I take this an argument for the development of "clean coal" technologies.

I also suspect that nuclear is in our future, but my long-standing concerns about waste continue. Again I take this as a positive argument for continued effort to solve that problem.

Big Change at NSF

For years (since around 1940) the NSF has often required cost sharing on projects that it has funded. This was especially true for projects that bought equipment. That requirement has now been all but eliminated.

This is important because it removes a bias against smaller institutions. Equipment proposals are often large and hence the matching portion would be large. This has prevented less well off institutions from competing for important Federal funds and over the long-haul would limit the frontier across which we can advance our understanding.

There is a caveat of course. Another implication is that because NSF must now fund all of its projects, it will be able to fund a smaller number of them and thus the competition for limited funds will become more intense, but it still provides an opening for high quality efforts from smaller institituions.

A final caveat is that this move also frees up a pretty good chunk of discretionary money at larger institutions. How will that money now be used?...

If the link above has expired and you are a Chronicle subscriber, the article can be found here. If you are not a subscriber, contact me and I will get you the text...

October 13, 2004

academic separateness

The core of university strength is its ability to produce and disseminate knowledge. Central to that strength is a set of practices that ensure that its knowledge activities meet minimum standards in quality. Quality control has evolved within the academy through the development of tenure and other review processes (e.g. committees on instruction). Our current portfolio of intellectual and practical challenges now requires that we recognize knowledge holders beyond academic institutions and whose stature is determined by processes quite different from those that colleges and universities are familiar with.

Separateness is deeply engrained in the history of academic freedom. That separateness has its origins in the clash between the theological roots of most of our colleges and universities and the rationalism that emerged in parallel with Darwinism in the mid-19th century (Metzger 1955) and that we now associate with scientific objectivity. It has been reinforced by the professionalization of academic disciplines and by feedbacks that call for communities of scholars to define expertise and to certify new members.

Against this historical backdrop, scholars are now turning attention to problems that span several traditional disciplines and, in doing so, have recognized the need for augmented norms in order to evaluate expertise and manage quality. While it is perhaps early to say that the problem has been solved within the academy, ad hoc solutions are well known and evolving.

Expertise that is quantified or recognized by metrics that have little or no overlap with academic credentials poses an as yet unsolved problem. If we are to advance our knowledge networks, we need to solve it.

October 06, 2004

A bit more on Parkfield

So what was all that behind the recent Parkfield entry? Here is a bit of explanation:

Earthquakes sometimes happen on faults, but not always
Most of the impressive earthquakes of the last few decades have happened on previously unrecognized faults. This has left some of us wondering whether the whole "earthquake fault" thing might be misconcieved. Parkfield occured on the part of the San Andreas Fault that it should have; but it was late. Or was it. As noted in the post the 1922 event might not have been on the SAF. If the 1922 event was on some other fault (unrecognized?) then the period at Parkfield looks alot more like 35 years and the recent event was right on time.
Predicting the future is hard
The Parkfield prediction is the only prediction that the USGS has ever made or is likely to make. They got it wrong despite the apparent simplicy of the Parkfield segment behavior. The regularity of the series is pretty striking, but whether it is regular at 22 years or 35 years is completely dependent on where the 1922 event was and that is something that we are not likely to ever be able to determine.
Earthquake risk is risky
All of earthquake risk thinking is based on the notion that earthquakes happen on recognized faults in ways that are similar from event to event. If you can't count on earthquakes occuring on faults that you know about, the problem is much harder.

Earthquake physics is very complex. I don't know how it compares in a technical sense to the complexity of the climate system or any other Earth systems. But it does give one pause as we think about trying to make decisons based on predictions.

For more on the issues surrounding prediction see Sarewitz et al. 2000

October 05, 2004

Parkfield, at last

Well it finally happened. 13 years late, but better late than never (I think).

In the early 1980s, earthquake scientist predicted that a magnitude 6.0 earthquake would occur on the Parkfield segment of the San Andreas fault by 1993. This was based on the fact that the Parkfield segment of the SAF seemed to have failed in very similar events, at regular intervals, over the last 150 years or so. (Events occured in 1857, 1881, 1901, 1922, 1934, and 1966.)

Lots of jingo in that, let me parse it a bit.
"segment of the SAF"
the San Andreas Fault is not perfectly straight and while on average the whole thing must slip at about the relative rate of slip between the North American and Pacific plates, different parts stick and slip at different times.
"seems to"
science waffle for "the timing isn't perfect, but it ain't bad either"
"very similar events"
similar events to a seismologist is one in which the same part of the fault slips about the same amount - roughly the size of the earthquake is area that slips times the amount that it slips.


In response to this prediction, the Parkfield Experiment was designed and implemented. Essentially that meant that alot of instruments were installed along that segment of the fault and then we waited. I was a graduate student during the time of the window at Parkfield and it was a long slow death. It had to happen, but no one could say when.

Now it has but not as it was expected: Previous events had initiated in the North and propogated south. This one started in the south and went north. Previous events had been preceeded by a pretty good fore shock (about magnitude 5). This one had no warning. Finally there is the issue of the timing. 22 years has long been accepted as the period at Parkfield, but as Chris Scholz points out the event prior to the 1966 (the event prior to this one) occured in 1934 which is 32 years. The interval since 1966 is 38 years. Allan Lindh has suggested that the 1922 event may have occured off of the SAF; if that is so then the interval is more like 35 years since 1901.

Note that the "suggested" link above will go away by about 13 October 2004. If you are a Chronicle of Higher Education subscriber it will always be available here. If you are not a subscriber, send me email and I will get you the text.

October 04, 2004

Road Kill

Lots of posts to write (the parkfield earthquake, the early evolution of tenure, science in the national parks, self censurship), but tonight I think I will take on a realtive short one - Road Kill.

In driving around Westchester County these days, my completely unscientific monitoring indicates that road kill is up by a bunch. I am pretty sure I saw a coyote (not wylie enough) by the Taconic on Saturday as well as a hawk (rather ruffled) further up the road. Mostly though it has been an increase in the number of racoons (big ones) and squirrels. (I hit a possum a week or so ago, my first known kill.) Haven't seen many dead skunks in the middle of the road or elsewhere for that matter.

So the question is - Why the increase? Is it seasonal? (I think yes). My guess (yes it is a guess, not an estimate) is that it has to do with increased foraging activity in preparation for the coming winter. It would be easy to explain my not having observed this before because I didn't have a girlfriend that lived in the country before this year. (well that depends on how you count - I was working on having one last year at this time, but we hadn't gotten to the point where I could make observatons about road kill).

A few other observations on the megafauna upstate. There are a lot of deer! They are bold, but 9-14 year old girls don't like me to throw rocks at them to send them out of the yard; however, they will volunteer to chase them. There are reports of black bears - they have definitely returned to Black Rock Forest. I expect it was wolves that kept the deer in check and they are definitely not prowling the backyards of Westchester County. I have heard coyotes in the dusk.

I don't really know what to think about what would amount to the predator / prey relations of an ecosystem such as Westchester, especially the lands surrounding the reservior system. It certainly looks to me like automobiles are a postive factor with respect to controlling the vermin population. I doubt that they are enough of a factor to replace whatever other predators might have done, but I really don't know. With respect to the deer, a top predator is definitely needed. Humans could be that too, but the 9-14yo girl factor is a real problem.

Zora is completely saturated with my scientific lessons (although she was intrigued when I suggested I could show her how to make up data; but then lost interest when I started adding error to our invented points) - so I am having to really bite my tonge with respect to her assigned evaporation experiment. I haven't discussed road kill with her.