Sunday, May 3, 2015

Does Earth Possess a Second Season?

Earth's changing distance from the Sun

Motivated by the observation that for approximately 18 years, global warming has been essentially constant -- a behavior on Nature's part that not a single climate model predicted -- I decided to look more closely at the scientific basis for Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming (CAGW), recently sanitized (to protect the children?) to the more innocuous "Climate Change". Catastrophic Warmists claim that human production of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is warming the Earth via the greenhouse effect and that the magnitude of this warming will soon be so immense as to be termed catastrophic. (See below for a "spaghetti graph" of climate model predictions versus Nature's response).

CAGW skeptics (sometimes termed "climate deniers") believe that the Earth is indeed warming and that some of this warming is surely due to human-produced CO2, but skeptics suspect that the magnitude of this CO2-induced warming has yet to be correctly modeled by climate scientists and has probably been exaggerated. While atmospheric CO2 continues to increase -- CO2 concentration recently exceeded 400 ppm compared to a pre-industrial level of 280 ppm (parts per million) -- the average global temperature has remained essentially flat since the beginning of the 21th Century.

Climate scientists quantify the warming strength of a greenhouse gas as a "forcing" measured in Watts per square meter. If you aimed a 200 Watt heat lamp at a 1x1 meter Muslim prayer rug, you would be subjecting that prayer rug to a "forcing" of 200 Watts per square meter. (W/m^2).

The physics of the greenhouse effect predicts the forcing due to a doubling of CO2 to be 3.7 W/m^2 -- about the same effect on that prayer rug as a tiny Xmas tree light instead of a heat lamp. But these tiny Xmas tree lights are spread over the surface of the entire Earth so this seemingly small forcing represents an immense total input of heat into the Earth's atmosphere.

The Earth's temperature rise due to 3.7 W/m^2 of forcing is estimated to be about 1.2 degrees Centigrade.

But CO2 forcing is only a small part of the story. Climate scientists argue that "feedback effects" will amplify this modest temperature rise to truly catastrophic values. Estimates of CO2 - induced warming WITH FEEDBACK range from 2 to 6 Centigrade degrees for a doubling of CO2. Differing estimates of this crucial feedback factor account for the spaghetti-like quality of climate model predictions.

The main source of this conjectured feedback is water vapor which is a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. When increased CO2 heats the atmosphere, more water vapor can be stored in the heated air. This extra water vapor causes more global warming than the CO2 alone.

BARE CO2 plus FEEDBACK = Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming.

The crux of the global warming controversy is whether current climate models are reliable enough to guide public policy. The correct estimation of feedback factors is a big part of this controversy.

The global warming debate is much too large a topic for a blog post. Here I want to discuss a discovery that is probably not original but which I have never seen discussed in the global warming literature. Does Earth have a "second season"?

Everyone knows that the Earth goes around the sun and that Earth's orbit is not circular but is shaped like an ellipse (a fact discovered by Johannes Kepler in the 17th Century). Traveling this oval path, the Earth is closest to the Sun in January (producing record high winter tides in Santa Cruz) and furtherest from the Sun in July.

When the Earth is close to the Sun (perihelion) it should be gathering more heat. And at aphelion, less heat will fall upon us. Just for fun I decided to calculate this dependable yearly change in solar radiation and compare this number with the 3.7 Watts/m^2 forcing due to CO2 doubling.

This is a simple physics problem. The change in Earth-Sun distance between perihelion and aphelion is 3.33%. Elementary calculus shows that the inverse-square law turns this 3.33% distance change into a 6.66% intensity change in the amount of solar radiation reaching Earth.

I looked up the intensity of sunlight at the top of the atmosphere. Bare solar radiation is 1350 Watts/m^2. But not all of that sunlight reaches the Earth's surface. The fraction of light reflected from a planet's surface is called its "albedo" (from the Latin term for "whiteness"). Mainly due to its bright white clouds, Earth's albedo is about 30% (compared to the dull Moon's 12% reflectivity). Subtracting reflected sunlight gives a nice round number for solar intensity at the Earth's surface -- 1000 Watts/m^2.

The 6.66% change in solar intensity amounts to a yearly change of 66.6 Watts/m^2 at the Earth's surface. That's a change in radiative forcing that's 18 times greater than the forcing (3.7 Watts/m^2) due to CO2 doubling!!! What a surprise!! Periodic solar forcing is immense!

Not so fast, Nick. Most of this solar radiation strikes the (spherical) Earth at a slant. And none of this radiation strikes the night side. To get a fair estimate of the "effective yearly change in total solar forcing" this number must be divided by 4. (Books on climate change explain why this correction factor for the spherical Earth is just 4 and not some complicated factor of pi.)

Dividing by four gives an effective yearly change in total solar forcing of 16.6 Watts/m^2 -- a factor of 4.5 greater than the calculated forcing due to a doubling of CO2.

Nearly 5 times as intense as the CO2 forcing -- and many times faster: Rate of solar forcing is measured in months compared to decades for CO2!

And that's just the BARE solar forcing before water-vapor FEEDBACK is factored into the equation.


This simple calculation suggests that in addition to the familiar seasons due to the tilt of the Earth's axis -- an asymmetric effect that produces Winter in Melbourne while it's Summer in New York, Earth should enjoy a symmetric "second season" during which the whole Earth warms in January and the whole Earth cools in July.

Does Earth's second season actually exist? Is our much vaunted science capable of measuring this periodic pulsation in the Earth's heat budget. Does our planet possess instruments sensitive enough to register this regular thermal heartbeat superimposed on the ordinary seasons that we know so well?

Therefore I am suggesting a new goal for 21th-Century climate scientists comparable to the search for a new planet or a new elementary particle. I propose we mount a well-funded international search for Earth's Second Season.

Spaghetti Graph: comparison of 90 climate models compared with satellite-measured average global temperature..(Click to enlarge.)

Friday, May 1, 2015

Nick's Jig


In gratitude to the Celtic music community which has afforded me so much pleasure, this gift on the spring feast of Beltane: a new song in jig time made out of the names of the counties of Ireland, the only nation on planet Earth named after a Goddess.

32 Irish Counties Jig

There's Wicklow and Wexford, Westmeath and Kilkenny,
Waterford, Sligo, Roscommon, Kildare.
Meath, Down, Armagh and Derry,
Donegal, Monaghan, Leitrim and Clare.

There's Carlow and Cavan, Cork, Tipperary,
Femanagh, Antrim, Longford and Tyrone.
Laois, Louth, Galway and Kerry,
Limerick, Offaly, Dublin, Mayo.

Ireland's thirty-two counties.

On Beltane
Quantum Tantra salutes Queen of May and Green Man.

On Beltane
Quantum Tantra honors Nature's wild intelligence
and the secret souls inside of things.

On Beltane
Quantum Tantra is doing its best
to experience Spinoza's Greatest Pleasure.

Celebrating Beltane in Glastonbury

On Beltane 
Nick Herbert appreciates his favorite teachers of Celtic lore 
especially musicians August O'Connor and Kim Fulton-Bennett,
novelists Frank Delaney and Morgan Llywelyn
and playwright and poet William Butler Yeats.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Ninety-Nine Names of Goddess

My two wives: Philippa and Betsy Rose
(Many thanks to my treasured teachers:
animal, human, vegetable and molecular.)

She is the Beginning and the End
She is Galaxy and Garden
She is the Sun and the Moon
She is Atom and the Void
She is Wisdom personified:
She is Sophia.

She is Adrianne, Annie, Alison, Athena and August
She is Beverly, Betsy, Brenda, Bella and Beth.

She is the Earth and the Sea
She is Fire and Ice
She is Energy and Time
She is Root and Bloom
She is Beauty embodied:
She is Aphrodite.

She is Carla, Carol, Cindy, Christine and Kate
She is Donna, Diana, Denby, Dorcas and Dannie.

She is Pain and Pleasure
She is Bear, Butterfly, Octopus and Eel
She is Prairie Grass and Marijuana
She is Sound and Sight
She is Smell, Taste and Touch
She is Life on the loose:
She is Daphne.

She is Marilyn, Margie, Marsha, Mary, Marie, Magdalena
She is Laura, Louise, Liane, Lena, Lise and Lorraine.

She is Darkness and Light
She is Consciousness and Slumber
She is Silver and Gold
She is Carbon, Argon, Niobium and Starlight
She is the Space between the Stars
She is the Angel of Death:
She is Kali.

She is Sheila, Sherry, Sharma, Stephanie, Stella & Sarah
She is Salima, Shasta, Gypsy, Lila, Ceci and Mollie
She is Andra, Patty, Elaine, Elizabeth, Philippa, Gabrielle
She is Debbie, Isabel, Ida, Nancy, Janice and Joy.

She is Unnamable, Unspeakable
She is Terror and Bliss
She is Nourishment and Intoxication
She is the Ocean and the Source
She is the Mother of Animals
She is the Juice in Things:
She is Shakti.

She is Illusion and Reality
White and Black
Male and Female
Birth and Death
She is the Wild Muse that inspires us
She is the Mystery that surrouds us
She is Everything and Nothingness
She is the Beginning and the End.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

His High Superfluousness

Robinson Jeffers, Carmel, California poet  (1887-1962)

(Some excerpts from Jeffers)

The beauty of things
Is in the beholder's brain --
The human mind's translation
Of their transhuman intrinsic value.

As mathematics, a human invention
That parallels but never touches reality
Gives the astronomer metaphors 
Through which he may comprehend
The powers and the flow of things: 
So the human sense of beauty 
Is our metaphor for their excellence, 
Their divine reality -- like dust in a whirlwind, 
Making the wild world visible.

Is it not by his high superfluousness we know
Our God? For to equal a need
Is natural, animal, mineral: but to fling
Rainbows over the rain.

And beauty above the moon, and secret rainbows
On the domes of deep sea shells.
Not even the weeds to multiply without blossom
Nor the birds without music.

Look how beautiful 
Are all the things that He does.

His signature
Is the beauty of things. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Reading Readiness


Can you read Hebrew? she asked
As she opened herself
Like the Torah.

Do you understand Arabic? she asked
As she opened herself
Like the Koran.

Do you speak English? she asked
As she opened herself
Like the King James Bible.

Do you happen to know Latin?
As she opened herself
Like the Summa Theologica.

University Library: Trinity College, Dublin

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Cosmic Speed Bumps

Daedalus Project (British Interplanetary Society)
In the late 70s the British Interplanetary Society conducted a feasibility study (called Daedalus) for an unmanned interstellar space craft powered by nuclear reactions and designed to achieve speeds close to that of light itself (approximately 10% of c). The Daedalus study inspired a movie proposal in the 80s that would dramatize NAFAL (nearly as fast as light) travel to other star systems for which I was hired as a science advisor. This film proposal, to be directed by Ken Jenkins and Dixie Quinlin was named the
Ken Jenkins
Fictional Starbow Project Itinerary

Starbow Project after an optical illusion produced by NAFAL travel in which for the inhabitants of the ship, the stars seem to form a rainbow-colored band centered around the direction of travel -- the so-called "starbow". Part of my job was to calculate what the starbow would actually look like. The movie was to be an animated cartoon of a round-trip voyage from Earth to two stars on which a successor to the Hubble telescope had detected signatures of life. These two stars formed an equilateral triangle with Earth with sides equal to about 10 light-years. Thus a round-trip voyage at near-light speed would take about 30 years.

However our propulsion system was so advanced (perhaps based on the hypothetical Woodward Effect) that Einstein's relativity effect reduced the subjective travel time by a "gamma factor" of two.
This means that the 30-year round-trip time as seen from Earth would only seem like 15 years to the space travelers themselves.

The quantity gamma ( = γ) is equal to one at slow speeds and gets higher as the ship's velocity approaches the speed of light. At 87% of c, gamma = 2. Gamma is a direct measure of relativistic effects. Not only does time rate on board ship decrease by a factor of gamma, the mass of the ship increases by a factor of gamma. Perceived lengths decrease by the gamma factor (the so-called Lorentz Contraction) and the shape and color of the star bow illusion depends directly on gamma.

In our movie, a planet around the first star is discovered to have primitive forms of life. And on the way to the second star the aliens show up.

I was reminded of the Starbow Project (which floundered due to lack of cash) upon reading a recent paper by Yurtsever & Wilkinson in which they calculate the effect of outside objects on a space craft traveling at near-light speeds (large gamma). For example, Y&W calculate that for a modest speed of gamma = 2, a baseball-sized object weighing 150 grams will possess an impact energy of 36 Megatons. Even a tiny grain of cosmic dust can produce a massive explosion.

If we suppose that our ship can detect and deflect sizable objects, the next problem is the impact of atoms of hydrogen (protons). As far as protons go, it is as if the ship had been placed in a gigantic particle accelerator such as the Large Hadron Collider. At a gamma of 1.3, these protons produce pions when striking the matter of the hull. And at a gamma of 9.1, these protons produce anti-protons upon impact, both of which will shower the inhabitants with radiation.

These sorts of cosmic speed bumps never seemed to bother Captain Picard and the crew of the Star Ship Enterprise. I suppose all these nasty particles are taken care of by the Enterprise's "deflector shields".

Once we have solved the problem of matter drifting into the path of our interstellar ship, the next cosmic speed bump is made of light. The universe is flooded with cosmic background radiation which has been red-shifted by the expansion of the universe into the microwave range. Now our speedy little starship is going to blue-shift that harmless microwave radiation into dangerous X-rays and gamma radiation.

The large-scale production of killer radiation from the cosmic radio background takes place at very high gammas of 100 million or so. At such high speeds, the ship experiences this cosmic light as a kind of thick molasses which tends to slow the ship down. But at speeds lower than that at which the cosmic background becomes viscous and deadly, we are treated to a cosmic light show.

When our ship is traveling at a gamma of 700, the cosmic background becomes visible as a dim red glow in the forward direction. As our speed increases to a gamma of 1400, the cosmic background becomes a rainbow ring which gradually expands leaving a dark central hole filled with frequencies of light higher than the eye can see. As the speed increases, this cosmic starbow expands, then narrows and contracts.

Perhaps someday we will learn to change our bodies into an immaterial form of being that can travel thru the cosmos at any speed less than the speed of light. If we are still able to perceive color in the old familiar way, then Yurtsever and Wilkinson will have gone there before us -- they have calculated the shapes and the colors of the cosmic starbows that such future immaterial beings will perceive.

Starbows produced by cosmic background radiation

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015)

Sir Terry being knighted by Queen Elizabeth: Feb 18, 2009
Sir Terry Pratchett died today at 66 with a cat in his lap, surrounded by his family. He was the author of more than 40 books about Discworld, a far funnier place than Larry Niven's classic Ringworld. (Ringworld is serious physics--held together by gravity and engineering; Discworld is serious parody, held together by magic -- and by Pratchett's unique brand of levity.) Although Pratchett's work  is consistently amusing, I also always feel a bit wiser after reading his stuff. I never met the man, but my nephew, Mark Herbert, while attending a science fiction convention in Memphis, TN, found himself at a party drinking beer and singing songs with Pratchett from the repertoire of Steeleye Span, Terry's favorite music group.

Here are a few Pratchett quotes for your edification.

If you don’t turn your life into a story, you just become a part of someone else’s story.

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it's not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.

The pen is mightier than the sword if the sword is very short, and the pen is very sharp.

Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.

I think perhaps the most important problem is that we are trying to understand the fundamental workings of the universe via a language devised for telling one another where the best fruit is.

Sometimes it is better to light a flamethrower than curse the darkness.

I mean, I wouldn't pay more than a couple of quid to see me, and I'm me.

It is often said that before you die your life passes before your eyes. It is in fact true. It's called living.


Sir Terry Pratchett has brought joy to millions of souls. He will be missed.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Altered State

by Bill Tavis at


When it first comes on
It feels odd 
To experience universe
From just one point of view
To navigate spacetime
In just one mind and body.

When it first comes on
It seems odd
To make one place in cosmos special
To feel one moment -- now -- is real.

When it first comes on
It seems strong
To be kicked out of eternity into time
To feel suddenly ignorant and helpless
To be gripped by strange laws
Not of my own making.

When it first comes on
It feels wrong
Not to be connected to All of You
Not to experience the ever-present
Schoolyard playfulness of sentient pals.

When it first comes on
It feels long
More then twenty thousand nights
I've switched off self and still come back.
Did I fail to read the warning on the box top?
Is this the fabled Nightmare Trip
That never ends?

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Quantum Olympics

Selection of molecules which show quantum interference in matter-wave interferometers. (Graphic by Sandra Eibenberger.)
At the beginning of the 20th century, one of the biggest problems in physics was to understand the interaction between matter and light. Today we possess an impressively broad and detailed knowledge of matter-light interactions expressed in the language of quantum theory.

In 1900, it was generally believed that light was made of waves and that matter was made of particles. This belief was shattered when Albert Einstein (better known for his relativity theories) showed that light in some situations acted like a particle. Einstein's particles of light were christened "photons". Later in the century, Louis de Broglie, the French prince who became a physicist, proposed that particles should possess wave properties. And de Broglie was able to calculate the supposed wavelength of the electron (the lightest of the known particles). He submitted this proposal for his PhD thesis at the Sorbonne. His professors were prepared to reject his thesis on the grounds of preposterousness. But through the intervention of Einstein the prince was awarded his degree which was crowned a few years later by a Nobel Prize when some American physicists at Bell Labs measured the wavelength of the electron which was precisely the value that de Broglie had predicted using his "preposterous" theory.

De Broglie's wave theory of matter predicts that every piece of matter possesses frequency, wavelength and "phase" (whatever these quantities might mean). Not only electrons, but protons, cats, bicycles and you yourself possess wave properties. The catch is that the more massive a particle gets, the smaller the particle's de Broglie wavelength. Hence it becomes more difficult to experimentally demonstrate a particle's wave properties as its mass gets larger.

Enter the Quantum Olympics. Open only to experimental quantum physics. What is the biggest (most massive) particle whose wave properties you can demonstrate in the laboratory?

The electron was the first to show its waviness, later the neutron -- almost 2000 times more massive than the electron -- was shown to be a wave. In the 1990s several large atoms such as Helium, Iodine and Sodium vapors were shown to possess wave properties. And in 1999, someone in Vienna succeeded in diffracting a buckyball -- a soccer-ball-shaped molecule consisting of 60 Carbon atoms.

A Talbot Carpet demonstrating near-field interference from multiple slits
Recently, spectacularly impressive records have been set in the Quantum Olympics. Using a novel matter-wave detection technique developed by John Clauser (of Bell's Theorem fame) called Talbot-Lau interferometry, experimenters from Vienna, Basel and Duisburg-Essen have demonstrated high-contrast quantum interference for a remarkable assortment of complex and increasingly massive molecules culminating with the current winner of Olympic Gold -- molecule "m" shown above.

The 2015 Olympic champ is a "functionalized porphyrin" with atomic formula:

C(284) H(190) F(320) N(4) S(12)

Congratulations to the assortment of clever physicists who showed that this assortment of increasingly massive particles behave like waves as well as like particles.

As admirable as these experiments might seem to the ordinary person, they seem even more remarkable, even impossible to the average physicist. These experiments seem impossible on the face of it because wave interference is a very delicate affair, requiring stability and coherence over large times and distances (compared to the sizes of these atoms). Although it might be possible to observe interference with atoms with very little structure, it should be impossible to do so for buckyballs and especially impossible for the grotesquely complicated molecules pictured above.

The reason that such experiments should be impossible is that these complex molecules are not rigid objects but possess hundreds of degrees of rotational, vibrational and conformational freedom. They are turning, vibrating, bending in hundreds of different ways. Certainly the waves associated with such a busy, buzzing, bendable object could never be moving coherently long enough to form a clean high-contrast Talbot Carpet such as the figure above in green. So goes the conventional wisdom.

But the conventional wisdom is wrong.

It can be shown (by quantum calculations) that as long as the internal motion of the molecule (no matter how grotesque this motion) is UNCORRELATED with the external trajectory of the molecule, then this internal motion will not destroy the coherence of the external motion. Hence these delicate experiments can even be carried out at room temperature when the internal motion of the molecule is as complicated as Times Square on New Year's Eve. However as the temperature is raised and the internal motion becomes hot enough to emit photons, photons that can perturb the molecule's external motion, then coherence is lost and the molecule's wave properties become impossible to detect.

This intrinsic decoupling of internal motions from the external motions of a complex object reminds me of a similarly engaging problem in theoretical physics: How do cats always manage to land on their feet when dropped?

It would seem impossible for a cat to turn over in midair because of conservation of angular momentum. And whatever could the cat push against to begin its spin? Like the busy, buzzing, bendable molecules, a cat's internal motion is completely decoupled from the trajectory of its center of mass. Yet it turns (as Galileo might have said). The cat turns. And lands on its feet. All without violating a single law of physics. Clever cat.

The Falling Cat Problem (from an illustration in the journal Nature 1894)

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Dangerous Candy

Dangerous candy: conjectured tomography

Hey little girl
Hey little boy
Lend me your ears.
And responsible grown-ups too.
This may be the most important news
You and your loved ones ever will hear.

There's a new candy going round
Made in physics labs.

Don't even look at it!
Its color is produced by
Triple-conjugated poly-peptides.

Just looking at this candy
Will pop the retinas of your eyes
Into 3 quantum states at once:
What you'll experience
Thru your triple-entangled retinas
Makes the Schrödinger Cat state
Look like Hello Kitty.

Don't look at this candy
Unless you're prepared to peek
Into hidden dimensions
No human has ever imagined.
Don't look at this candy
Unless you're prepared to see
Into the hearts and minds
Of the people around you
In ways you never dreamt possible.

If you've already looked
Stop right there.

Little girls, little boys,
Responsible grown-ups.

Don't touch this candy!
Its surface is made of layers
Of room-temperature interfering plasmons
That will jack your body directly into
What some scientists call the "Unified Field"
And what others describe as:
"Really weird shit
Outside the realm of science."

Little boys, little girls,
Responsible grown-ups.

Don't touch this candy
Unless you're prepared
To be swept away
Into the deep quantum currents
That make the stars shine
And hold the world together.

Don't touch this candy
Unless you're prepared
To knowingly experience
The warm invisible tentacles
That connect us to all living things
And to every particle of matter.

If you've already touched
Stop right there.

Little girls, little boys,
Responsible grown-ups.

Don't put this candy into your mouth!
This candy was made
By the same folks
Who work and play on a first-name basis
With quarks, gluons and the Higgs boson.

Little boys, little girls,
Responsible grown-ups.

Don't put this candy into your mouth.
Don't taste this candy with your lips and tongue
Don't chew up and swallow
This miracle of modern physics.

Little girls, little boys,
Responsible grown-ups.

Don't take this miracle
Into your body.

Fruitful Nature (photo by August O'Connor)