Untitled photo

3. An Engineer's Perspective–The Beginning

I have followed civilization's (and especially America's) reactions to development in the science of climate change for about 15 years. It began with a web story about increaseing greenhouse effect due to more carbon dioxide and then briefly assesed the potential for substantial positive feedback from melting tundra and the release of the much more potent greenhouse gas (about 30 times that of CO2) methane. This felt a bit like an electric shock.

Scientists and engineers may overlap or even exchange roles, especially with MIT providing the engineering education. I doubt there are more than a handfull (Cal Tech comes to mind) that load an electrical engineering curiculum with as much physics as MIT. I remember courses in quantum mechanics, deep preparation for everything electrical and magnetic including magneto hydrodynamics. I remember vividly a conversation with a plastics engineer whose colleague was from MIT was struggling with the practical parts of his job demeaning the value of high-class schools. Of course the fun part the plastics engineer asking me where I studied:"Oh, by the way John, where did you go to school." Silence followed my answer.

There is a reason for dwelling on this. I just finished reading two books on the LIGO project that succeeded in detecting gravitational waves. This may be the most difficult experimental measurement every made. I loved reading about it and even more when I had an opportunity for a lecture and dinner with Rainer Weiss of MIT who began the whole adventure and discovering we overlapped at MIT and worked only a few doors away from each other. It took 50 years to design and build the incredible structures that did the measurements and six months for 500 scientists to write the paper for Physical Review Letters. For science deniers the story of this eperiment will nail shut very quickly and firmly doubts about how science works and the incredible lengths scientsts go to insure the results of theirmexperiments are correct. Part of it is an insane effort to prove each other wrong with the intent, of course, of being sure in the end that they are right. The experiment had to measure motion about one billionth the size of a proton and it succeeded.

However, although the comparison is a bit like comparing different sports, climate change is far more difficult that gravitational waves. Gravational wave detection is what I would call a "clean" experiment, which means elemenating tiny defects to make the measurements more sensitive. Climate change is almost infinitely messy because of the enormous number of variables spread over three dimensions, variables that change wildly, and the extraordinary difficulty in convincing someone it is real, for weather and climate are very hard to tell apart. Without a clear sense of the role of each, it is a bit like a world championship masquarde party. And this presents some deadly problems.

Colleagues will usuallly arrive on the scene with a clear understanding, but explaning it to someone without a science background is difficult if not impossible. And this makes it extraordinarily difficult to move the work along despite warnings from extremely qualified scientists.

However, I am going to dwell on my personal relationship to climate change and that requires a signifiant venture into the physics of cosmology. In other words where did this earth, that is in such great danger, come from, which leads to the question where did everything come from which leads to one of the boundaries in science beyond which research makes a quantum leap in difficulty. The effect of this on me is to view th earth as extraordinariy precious and to be mystified and angry in the way it is treated the consequences of which I discuss below.

Below is a drastically out of scale illustration of the many epochs of the 13.8 billion year old universe. The beginning is commonly called "the big bang." However, mathamatically it is what is known as a "singularity." For an event in space-time, its dimensions are the Plank distance and the Plank time, the shortest distane and time possible in a quantum universe. The Plank time is about 10-34 seconds and the Plank distance is about 10-44 cm. The 3rd dimension, the energy contained in the singularity, is infinite.

I prefer to refer to the big bang as the Grand Singularity.

Untitled photo

It was not until the universe was about 300,000 years old that ordinary matter appeared and over 200 million years that the firsst stars and galaxies appeared.

Powered by SmugMug Owner Log In