Hello and happy November! I’m so flattered to be joining the Cocktail Party, so thank you for the opportunity. It probably says a lot about me that my first post is political and feisty—but this whole election season has got me feeling, well, political and feisty. It’s kept my writing fires burning well past bedtime. Someone told me not to bring up politics upon first meeting people, but I never claimed to be the most socially savvy girl in the room, so here goes!
It was an exciting week at The Termite Terrace. That’s a loving term me and my housemates gave to our pad—even though we don’t actually have termites. I think we find it funny that the house doesn’t have termites when the state of it suggests that it should. Instead the house only attracts one stray cat and seven nerdy 20-somethings. Anyway, the excitement came because about a dozen media outlets covered our roomie Sarah’s research on declining amphibian populations in Yellowstone. The BBC put it on the front page of their science section, and it ended up making number one on Digg. It culminated with an interview on the local news station, carving a perma-grin on dear Sarah’s face for two days.
But the grin was only skin deep. Sarah’s research doesn’t elicit shouts of joy. For three summers she’s traveled to Yellowstone to study amphibian populations in the isolated Lamar valley. Using a study from the early 1990’s as a baseline, Sarah showed that rising global temperatures are drying out the amphibian habitats, causing increased infection rates and massive loss of life. So while we’re all happy that Sarah got her “fifteen minutes,” she’s also saddened by the news. I’m amazed by the passion in her voice when she says “I love amphibians.” For her, doing something like hanging her laundry in the backyard instead of using the dryer is directly linked to those tiny lives. And she realizes that if we can’t protect them in the most sacred national park in the country, then where can we protect them?
When not talking about her research, Sarah and I often find ourselves standing in the kitchen hashing out that day’s Palin Plunders. We’ve bonded over our “love to hate” feelings toward Governor Sarah Palin. The Gov laid this golden egg of wisdom a few weeks ago: when asked if she believes that humans cause global warming, she responded, "It kinda doesn't matter at this point in the debate what caused it. The point is its real; we need to do something about it."
I think John Stewart nailed it best when he said: "You have lung cancer. I don't know what caused it, but I think I know what will help…" and pulls out a pack of Marlboros. He then shouts: "It matters how it happened!"
I’m sure I’ll tread on global warming more in the future, but this post is really about the Governor’s stampede over scientific logic. Somehow, to her and her campaign coaches, the best way to avoid alienating people on this issue is to try and straddle a spectrum wider than the Grand Canyon. I’m troubled by this attempt because I think her statement reflects something deeper—something subtler—about the war on science taking place in America.
The essence of scientific thinking lies in understanding cause and effect. It's one of the fundamental functions of our brains, a key mile marker in development, and one thing that makes each and every one of us scientists. Yes, we are all scientists! Profession does not limit that title; it is a state of being. When we learn that objects in motion tend to stay in motion unless acted upon by a force (i.e. tricycle and wall) we become physicists. Mixing together condiments and seasonings with reckless abandon to see them change color? Chemists! Thousands of other examples exist and most people don’t notice the many ways we use scientific thinking to get through our day to day lives. More often than not, these observations spring from our favorite childhood question: WHY? (Louie CK's sketch about his daughter asking “why?” is my favorite example.)
We inherently want to know what the cause is! As we grow up, the causes move further away from the effects, such as in the case of global warming, but we do get better at figuring these things out. And dismissing that beautiful cognitive function not only makes finding a solution much more difficult, it directly attacks those who will solve the problem.
In my pre-officially-a-science-writer days, I remember reading about the famous “O-ring” demonstration that Richard Feynman made as part of the presidential committee appointed to investigate the Challenger explosion. Six astronauts and a teacher never made it out of the atmosphere before their shuttle exploded in mid air in 1986. One of those “where were you when…” moments. America solemnly followed the investigation, and then watched Feynman show very simply that round rubber rings, meant to seal up pipe cracks, failed to expand when chilled. On the cold morning of the shuttle launch, the rings didn’t perform the critical function they were made for. The simplicity of Feynman’s demonstration revealed the power of simple cause and effect—but too late. The families, friends and countrymen of those astronauts agree: it matters how it happened.
I will concede that there are times to address a problem and times to address its cause. When the levees broke in New Orleans, we of course had to do something about the devastation it caused. It didn’t matter how it happened, but it mattered to thousands of people that the government did something about it. Let’s hope Sarah isn’t modeling her global warming strategy off Bush’s plan for New Orleans. But once the levies broke there was nothing else we could do. We couldn’t stop Katrina, but when it was over we knew it wouldn’t come back. If the crisis in New Orleans had an ongoing cause, like global warming, it would have been necessary to identify that cause and stop it before it continued to devastate the area. Now that New Orleans struggles to rebuild itself, and the east coast of America continues to be pummeled by hurricanes, thousands of families are hoping that whatever went wrong in New Orleans doesn't happen to them. Let us not underestimate the power that cause and effect have on our lives.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association just released their second annual Arctic Report Card, combining data from scientists from 46 countries and more than 100 institutions to give a full survey of how the Arctic is doing. The report card evaluates air temperatures, sea temperatures, ice levels, snow levels, changes in biology and much more. This is only the second report card put out by NOAA, but for comparison it includes data going back more than a hundred years. One notable historical fact is that the 1920's also saw an unusually warm spell. I find this particularly interesting for people who say the Earth goes through temperature cycles because guess what: even during that natural warm spell, things still weren't heating up to the temperatures they are at now.
This image and figure are from NOAA: "Daily ice extents 2005, 2007, and 2008, and averaged over the 5-yr periods 1980–84 through 2000–04. Values are derived from satellite passive microwave data from NASA's SMMR and the Department of Defense's SSM /I.(Adapted from Comiso et al. 2008.)"
Researchers agreed that the most notable thing about this years report was an overall loss in sea ice. 2007 showed levels lower than have ever been reported before.
The report grew in perspective this year, and included far more biological information. It included a very sad statistic to pair with Sarah's amphibians: receding sea ice has caused Walrus habitats to shrink, and as clans are forced to live together there is an overall increase in trampling deaths.
One scientist pointed out that the Report Card isn’t just to keep an eye on global warming. The artic is a litmus test for the rest of the world, and the ice gives us a very visual example of how global temperatures are changing. These things affect more than amphibian populations in Yellowstone. The shipping and seafood industry is greatly affected by local ocean temperatures, sea ice levels, and changing biological factors. The report card is a wonderful example of how the global science community can come together to give a comprehensive look at the state of our planet, and expand on how changes ripple down and affect individuals.
Physics, the field I love, is an eternal exploration of cause and effect. It is the passionate pursuit of the most fundamental causes, the mysterious and unseen effects, and the wondrous possibilities offered by understanding them. It is a fire that drives scientists to question our very existence. You can't ask one question without feeling a thousand more flood your mind. What are we made of? How did we get here? How does this astounding world work? How did the universe begin? The Large Hadron Collider at CERN might answer some of these big questions. It's an exciting time.
Yet in the same year, a candidate for the second highest post in our nation questions the value of knowing WHY.
One person believing such a truth might anger me, but we are a country of differing opinions and I respect that. The truth of the situation—the cause—is far worse than one person's opinion. At some point, the extreme sides of this debate spread so far from each other that the middle ground disappeared. In an attempt to appease both sides, a political party has directed its candidate to say things like “It kinda doesn’t matter how it happened, we just have to do something about it.” Taking one piece from each end of an argument does not always make a compromise. If we approach global warming, or any problem like it, with an attitude that dismisses the foundations of the science that will ultimately solve it, how on earth do we expect to reach a solution? With all due respect, it is not the function of church leaders and hunters to develop alternative fuel sources. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Or the one that fishes you out of a steadily rising ocean. I beg you Governor, to take a note from another Sarah, and think of the amphibians.