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

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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.”

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

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