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Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting: From the Big Bang to the Big Controversy (aka Climate Change)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The first morning lecture series for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, which is focused on physics for this, its 62nd anniversary year, got off to a cosmic start, tracing the origins and evolution of the universe, before crashing back to Earth with a discussion of climate change. (You can read all our coverage this week, including the “30 under 30” profiles series of young scientists attending in this In-Depth Report. Also see the Lindau Nobel Community blogs.)

Brian Schmidt, who won a Nobel in 2011 for discovering the accelerating expansion of the universe through observations of supernovae, gave a primer on that cosmic growth, starting from American astronomer Vesto Slipher’s first measurements of nearby galaxies in 1916, where he noticed that they were redshifted on average, or traveling away from us. Compressing what he said was 18 lectures into a half hour, Schmidt swiftly outlined the inputs to the Friedmann equation, developed in the early 1920s: all of Einstein’s equations, he added, break down into “a nice, simple differential equation.” Given a universe with only ordinary matter, for instance, the equations produce “gnaB giB”— “the universe I wanted to live in”—ending in a “Big Crunch” that was the reverse of the Big Bang. But, he cautioned, “One should not prejudge the universe. The universe does what it wants and it’s our job as scientists to figure it out.” Dark matter and dark energy were later found to play important roles in cosmic shaping. “This model works beautifully, but it does require us to invent 95.5% of the universe,” he said.

John C. Mather, who shared the 2006 Nobel Prize with George Smoot for their findings related to cosmic microwave background radiation, compared studying the universe to taking a photo of a football match: “You see small people, large people, young people, old people. As scientists, you have to figure out how the small people became large people.” He reviewed a number of projects underway to do just that, including the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, which he said is the size of the court where tennis star Serena Williams plays. “We’ve never had a tennis court in space before, so this is a wonderful engineering project,” he added.

Smoot described sky probes including the Sloan Digital Sky survey and concluded the cosmic speaker set with some beautiful movie visualizations made from both simulations and actual images. “The goal that we have is to measure a series of spherical shells around us, and each of those gives a sample of the universe at different stages,” he said.

Back to Earth

Returning to the concerns of this blue marble, Paul Crutzen, who shared the 1995  Nobel with Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland, for their work in understanding the formation and destruction of ozone, outlined the numerous changes that humanity has wrought during the “anthropocene.” He listed, among others, the increase in carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, pollutants such as excess nitrogen from fertilizers, and the rising use of potable water. He associated a global average temperature increase of 0.7 degrees C with problems such as decreased snow cover. “The warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” he added.

Continuing on this theme, Molina illustrated the start of his talk with a photo of the oasis-like Earth against the backdrop of space. We are “stressing the natural capacity of the atmosphere to deal with the unwanted side products of human activity,” he warned. He noted that the science community increasingly finds it more likely that instances of wild weather (such as floods, fires) could be associated with climate change. “The scientific evidence is really overwhelming. Most experts agree; maybe two or three in 100 disagree.” He added, “I know who they are and why they are wrong.” Anticipating the next speaker, Ivar Gieavaer, who shared the 1973 prize for work on tunneling in superconductors but was to offer a skeptical take on climate change, Molina said that critics aren’t usually the experts. Listening to them, he added, is like going to your dentist when you have a heart problem.

As he took the stage for his turn, Gieavar’s immediate remark was, “I am happy I’m allowed to speak for myself.” He derided the Nobel committees for awarding Al Gore and R.K. Pachauri a peace prize, and called agreement with the evidence of climate change a “religion.” In contrast to Crutzen and Molina, Gieavar found the measurement of the global average temperature rise of 0.8 degrees over 150 years remarkably unlikely to be accurate, because of the difficulties with precision for such measurements—and small enough not to matter in any case: “What does it mean that the temperature has gone up 0.8 degrees? Probably nothing.” He disagreed that carbon dioxide was involved and showed several charts that asserted, among other things, that climate had even cooled. “I pick and choose when I give this talk just the way the previous speaker picked and chose when he gave his talk,” he added. He finished with a pronouncement: “Is climate change pseudoscience? If I’m going to answer the question, the answer is: absolutely.”

Last of the morning lectures was Hartmut Michel, whose talk focused on ways to avoid the use of fossil fuels or mitigate their use. After providing a thorough proof of why biofuels are inefficient—both in terms of land use and the energy required to produce them—Michel provided a couple of what he called “vision” slides. In one, he said that scientists needed to improve the carbon-dioxide fixing enzyme Rubisco in plants by genetic engineering and selection techniques. It might be possible “to increase efficiency of carbon dioxide fixation and the yield of photosynthesis by 50 to 100 percent.” The dark side is literal: the leaves would then be black. “You can consider then walking in a black forest, where the leaves will be black. How would you like that?”

Last, he envisioned electric vehicles powered by solar panels on deserts such as the Sahara in Africa, the Gobi in China, and others in Australia and Mexico, with superconducting electricity cables providing power to the globe. “Our cars should be driven by electric engines using electric energy directly derived from sunlight,” he said. No energy storage would be needed: “The sun is always shining somewhere.”

Mariette DiChristina About the Author: Editor in Chief, Mariette DiChristina, oversees Scientific American, ScientificAmerican.com, Scientific American MIND and all newsstand special editions. Follow on Twitter @mdichristina.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. jctyler 7:45 am 07/3/2012

    Inviting Gieavar to speak on climate science is like asking Watson to pontificate on social genetics. Last proof that Lindau is a very overrated meeting of too many has-beens.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Shoshin 9:41 am 07/3/2012

    “Is climate change pseudoscience? If I’m going to answer the question, the answer is: absolutely.” – Gieavar

    Unbelievable….

    SCIAM editors allow a heresy to reach print. Off with their heads!!

    Link to this
  3. 3. jctyler 4:25 pm 07/3/2012

    shoshi: not a heresy, a stupidity!

    But it’s good journalistic practice to quote whoever speaks officially. It’s called journalism. And like all good journalists they also do not print certain things, like not quoting someone not speaking officially asking “who invited that nutter here? He’s not a skeptic, he’s a bleepin lunableep. He doesn’t even know what he’s talking about.”

    You see, a Nobel prize is not absolute proof of intelligence in itself. It quite often only means that someone succeeded in his field at the right time in the right place with the right discovery. Like how the tunnels get into the cheese when tunnels and cheese are that year’s mind and matter.

    BTW, Gieavar is not a climate scientist, he is a physicist. Believing what he has to say about climate science is believing what your dentist says about heart surgery. While he might as a doctor and from personal experience indeed know a thing or two about it you’d still be well advised to shop around for a second opinion.

    OTOH if you are the type who believes his dentist I might have a climate science expert for you right here:

    http://mediamatters.org/research/185495

    Link to this
  4. 4. Steve Richards 4:38 am 07/4/2012

    Unbelievable!

    Gieavar is a Physicist, someone who spends his working day measuring events with extreme accuracy and precision.

    How different that is to your average Climate Scientist who uses statistics (bad ones at that) to ‘prove’ a concept.

    We need more real scientists, who observe, measure and theorise from these real world measurements.

    PS: Bad teeth and some dental work can have a serious impact on your heart, look it up!

    Link to this
  5. 5. EnergyExpert 7:23 am 07/4/2012

    To paraphrase an insightful ad hominem from above:
    “Hansen is not a climate scientist, he is a physicist. Believing what he has to say about climate science is believing what your dentist says about heart surgery.”

    If Gieavar is wrong, then stick to the specific technical errors of his position. Claims for authority (e.g. consensus) are outside the realm of science. This is SCIENTIFIC American, right?

    Link to this
  6. 6. OJohnsen 7:48 am 07/4/2012

    I recently heard Giaevers presentation in Norway. He told the audience that he was invited to a panel debate on Climate Change at the Nobel Laureate Meeting a few years ago, and he originally refused because it was not his field of expertise, and besides, he was skeptical of global warming. But if you’re skeptic, you definitely should take part, it was argued, and so he was persuaded.
    Then he started to look into the matter. Unfortunately, he chose not to study the relevant Science. Instead, his method was “pick and choose”, as he says in the article above. That is, picking facts and arguments that supports his original idea. Which is, ironically, exactly how he described pseudoscience in his presentation.
    It was really sad to watch a scientist give such an unscientific presentation. No reference to the experts in relevant fields, no signs of understanding the field´s history and what the debate is really about. Just a few bits of arguments anyone can pick up fast from the Internet, and not even the best ones from the self-pronounced skeptics.
    To a non-scientfic audience who is not familiar with the debate, it can of course sound “scientific”. But it must have been an embarassing day in Lindau.

    I see a comment above saying that we need real scientists who observe, measure and theorise from real world measurements. That is indeed exactly what the physicists who discovered global warming has done. Read Spencer Weart´s “The Discovery of Global Warming”. Which is where Giaever also should have started. Instead he chose the pseudo-scientifical approach.

    Link to this
  7. 7. OJohnsen 9:17 am 07/4/2012

    To “Energy expert”: It is hard to argue concretely against Giaever when you don´t have access to his presentation and slides. (When you have that, it is in my opinion very easy.)
    As referred here, he starts out by questioning the temperature record. His argument is that you can´t measure “the global mean temperature”, because it is practically impossible and besides, the coverage in the Polar Regions is poor.
    If Giaever had used a scientific approach, he would have noticed that the temperature records do not compute a global mean temperature.
    The temperature record is about anomalies measured at the different stations, averaged to a global mean anomaly, not absolute temperature. In that way the poor Arctic/Antarctic coverage is more or less irrelevant, as it is no reason that the warming in the rest of the globe should be cancelled out by cooling in the polar regions. On the contrary, climate models suggest more warming in the Polar regions. For the Arctic, this is also confirmed by the high warming at stations close to the Arctic, and the dwindling summer Ice. There doesn´t seem to be such extra warming in the Antarctic, which can be explained by the continent and the gigantic ice sheet placed there. (Indeed many geologists suggest that the placing of a continent on the South Pole, surrounded by around-the-world winds and sea currents keeping warm air and water away, is the reason for the Earth entering our present Ice Age Era.)

    Next, he says that a warming of 0,8 degrees is not extraordinary, in Earth´s History. If he had taken his argument about global temperature seriously, he could not have said that. It follows that it would be impossible to say anything at all, scientifically, about global temperature changes.

    The science does indeed show, however, that such temperature increases have happened before. In short time spans as well. The temperature reconstructions show that temperature can continue to increase, and that changes of several degrees is possible.

    Giaver seems to suggest that the existence of earlier changes, naturally caused, is proof that the recent temperature change must be naturally caused. It is not, of course.

    The rest of Giavers slides was a rather poor collection of some of the usual cherry-picked graphs and arguments, well known from the debate. Among others, an article he claimed showed that the Greenland Ice Cap is gaining ice. It does not. As anyone familiar with the scientific discussion of the Greenland Ice Cap will know, it is about how much ice Greenland is losing.

    As a physicist, Giaever does not deny the existence of the greenhouse effect. In his presentation he told that the Earth would be 35 degrees C colder without it. (Oddly enough, as the difference usually is given as about 33 degrees, but that´s not important.) So, if he wants to be “skeptical” about significant global warming, I´d have expected him to focus on climate sensitivity and tried to defend Lindzen´s position. Instead, he gives a presentation Anthony Watts probably could have done better. The lesson learned from this, is that not even Nobel Laureates always speak wisdom. Be skeptical!

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  8. 8. brublr 5:15 pm 07/5/2012

    4 billion years ago, the sun was at 70% of its intensity at present and has steadily increased it’s output to its level of today. This is known as the “Faint young Sun paradox”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faint_young_Sun_paradox

    since temperatures then rivaled and exceeded those of today. Vulcanism as a source of carbon dioxide and global warming at something like todays pace is the obvious reason. It was global warming w/ 5%-30% less sun then as against now, depending on how far back one looks. Is that not global warming as warning? You’d think we’d hear about this phenomenon more often as it ends the sun as culprit argument. And Global Warming now has the most intense Sun. Of Ever! and with the mega-volcanic like output in factories, highways, skyways and anyways, we can do it! We can take Global Warming to undreamed of heights!

    Link to this
  9. 9. Chris2 6:00 am 07/10/2012

    Confronted by a complicated problem like earth warming, the criticism from non-experts should not be disregarded out of hand. The ‘experts’ tend to be caught up in a paradigm of philosophy and methodology. In some of the early papers on temperature increase one could already see the conclusion that it was human-induced. Such a conclusion would only be valid if possible other causes have been eliminated or discounted for valid reasons. The fact that there is an apparent correlation between carbon dioxide concentration and measured temperatures does not necessarity imply a prime causative relation. Water vapour and other gases like methane are more than 20 times better at infra-red absorption. The effect on temperature by the former (severeal degrees on a daily cycle) can be observed even by a rank amateur under favourable, stable, dry climatic conditions. However, one suspects the global effect is simply too difficult to model. It also does not take an expert to recognise that a reduction in sea ice would likely increase heat absorption, i.e. positive feedback. The cleanup of coal power plant emissions (sulphurous ash clouds) means less shielding of solar radiation and represents a well-meant human contribution to warming. Concentrating on carbon dioxide has the advantage of simplicity and, politically, the godsent ability to apportion blame and to levy an extra tax!

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  10. 10. NikFromNYC 12:36 pm 03/18/2014

    How is there possibly any debate about the nature of climate “science” after the Mann promoted 2013 Marcott hockey stick in too journal Science?! A single glance by any layperson reveals undeniable fraud:
    http://s6.postimg.org/jb6qe15rl/Marcott_2013_Eye_Candy.jpg

    Link to this

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