Saturday, 17 May 2008
After the rise comes the decline. But why is this become an issue linked to political orientation? It is supposed that left-leaning types predict the gloomy picture, while those on the right imagine it's all a lot of...imagining, deriding the pessimistic doomsayers. Surely this is a topic where we should listen to scientists rather than politicians.
The problem with charts like these is that they give the illusion of certainty. It can make the future seem inevitable, and leave us feeling powerless. We can't save the world, but we can do a backyard blitz, so we'll do that instead.
The Club of Rome was founded in 1968, with direly predicting the depletion of global resources. Their depressing predictions are now dismissed by many since they haven't happened yet. Not yet. Meanwhile the world's population has doubled in my lifetime, and is set to double again by 2050. Opinions are greatly divided, but we are probably at or about "peak oil" right now; the point at which easily extracted reserves are depleted. Global food stocks are at a 30 year low, down from 200 million tonnes in the late 1990s to 110-115 million tonnes today (C.Times May '08).
Since you're reading this, I guess you're sitting in front of a computer. Much of that is made from plastic, which mostly comes from oil. It, and the other components were transported from around the globe to you using oil.
This morning, the Sorbelene-based moisturiser on your face was made from oil (packaged in plastic which came from...oil). Your cereal breakfast was grown in pastures fertilised by oil derivatives *, delivered to your supermarket, and brought home....using oil.
The extent of our civilisation's dependency on oil is so vast it's hard to comprehend. Even harder to comprehend is our blind-sight of the problem. I wonder if we are like the passengers on the Titanic, warm, comfortable, and sipping Martinis. Lulled by the collective complacency of fellow passengers, confident that it's all under control.
But if you're an optimist, and are sure there's oil to burn, I'm wondering how long we wait.
* Here is a discussion on oil & fertilizers.
Wednesday, 14 May 2008
I always wondered if it were possible to harness all the energy expended in the gym to power something - it turns out we can! Just think - a device that you can strap to your knee that creates electricity to generate all our devices... hikers could generate enough to power a small electric stove :P
Monday, 12 May 2008
A 13-year old boy was supposed to have corrected NASA's predictions of it hitting the Earth. Turns out the asteroid would be flying outside the orbit of the satellites, so there's no chance of one influencing the trajectory. Good try anyway.
A good example of how we should not be so credulous reading the news. And in hindsight, the signs were there: 13 year old schoolboy debunks NASA.
So listen carefully, one day we might plant an item on the program: Sudanese mother of three detects Higg's boson, just to see if you're paying attention.
Monday, 5 May 2008
Actually, Eratosthenes of Cyrene, head of the Great Library of Alexandria had proven the earth to be round. Knowing that on a certain day, at noon, an obelisk in Luxor (s. Egypt) would cast no shadow, at exactly the same time he measured the shadow of an obelisk in Alexandria. He knew the height of the obelisk and the distance between Alexandria and Luxor; the rest is trigonometry. Claudius Ptolemy's geography is also based on the concept of the earth being round, and sun, moon and the stars circling around the earth.
So, Ptolemy produced a map of a globular Earth as early as AD 140
it was not until much later of course that magellan sailed around it
Friday, 2 May 2008
Fuzzy Logic, Human Logic
It is well known that Hitler was a nasty piece of work, but did you know he was also a master negotiator? Apparently one of his tactics was to put out a ridiculously over the top position, then allow his opponent to claw their way back to a more moderate conclusion. Even after generous compromise he’d come out ahead.
Another tactic was more prosaic, and entailed manipulating seating positions. He would be use a tall chair, and his opponents a low one - forcing them to look up at him. An interesting phrase, that ‘look up’. In one sense it is a physical act, and in another it suggests a social ranking: one party being superior to the other. In a small way this positioning gave Hitler a psychological edge over his opponents. You could also see his mastery of similar techniques in his speech making. He would approach the lectern then stop. The crowd waits, anticipating another fiery diatribe, but for an age he remains silent, staring down at the audience. I have watched film of this, and it seems an eternity before he begins slowly, and deliberately. It is not until the end that he looses a barrage of spitting and shouting, in feverish intensity.
Recently I had a difficult meeting with a person with an important role in my day job. Normally I’m very aware of seating positions in a meeting since they can have a huge effect on perceptions and the outcomes. If you are curious about this, I highly recommend the book Body Language by Allan Pease. In my meeting, my preferred position was not available, forcing me to sit adjacent to the main person while my colleagues sat opposite. The person was annoyed with us for various reasons and the encounter did not go well. This was not helped by our seating position since we formed a semi-circle around them, in my mind much like a flanking manoeuvre. Not what we wanted with a person we needed to placate.
Again I have begun a story on a tangent, and you may be wondering what this has to do with science. I’m talking about it because last week we had a lively on-air discussion about the forms of false logic, and its role in critical thinking. On one level you might think these encounters should be completely rational. But how is it that a person negotiating with Hitler might be swayed by something as inconsequential as the height of their seat? Or that my discussions about some work might be thrown off track partly because I was sitting in the wrong place? Surely in both cases pure logic should be all that’s required for the best result?
During our broadcast we gave three reasons why we are prone to false logic. The first was the nature sets us up to fail. It sets us up because the universe is so big, so complicated that a feeble human brain can dimly discern only a small part of it. The second reason is social: much of our intelligence is directed towards maintaining our position in a difficult social world. As a tribal animal, if you fall foul of the group, you are likely to starve. Therefore it’s generally good policy to agree with those in authority.
The final reason is psychological, and to illustrate that, here is another anecdote. Have you ever had the experience of being completely and utterly lost? Geographically rather than emotionally that is. I did not think it was possible to get lost on an island until one day in the Dampier Archipelago. I looked over the hill and saw a landmark that should not have been where it was. That day I walked 25 kilometres, but the physical effort was nothing compared to the mental anguish of seeing my world view fundamentally undermined. You may have done something similar yourself when you launch across an intersection having not seen the approaching car.
It can be extremely disconcerting to be proven wrong. How much simpler and friendlier the world when your views are fixed. Every fact and opinion neatly filed, unscathed by incoming data. It takes a certain strength to admit mistake. Much easier to pin your life on dogma, with each new fact used to prop up preconceptions. This is the antithesis of science which insists that we constantly revise and correct our views. This is why science is not simply an ‘alternative religion’ with me and fellow Fuzzy Logicers slavish adherents. Doubtless we frequently fail the test, but at least it’s worth striving for.
I ponder these thoughts reading last weekend’s newspaper. It carries a story of séances, and people reaching loved ones in the afterlife. The rational me says these things are bunkum, and there is no such place, no spirit world, no mediums. Yet the people I read about are clearly moved by such things. Somehow it adds meaning to their lives which makes their daily travails more bearable. And by chance, as I type this story I’m listening to Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. It was the favourite music of my recently dead father. A piece that would make his eyes moisten, and I know there is more to the world than cold hard logic.