Monday, May 21, 2018

Fun with Useless Calculations, or, How to Be a Republican Science Expert


We have nothing better to do, so let’s do some fun and useless calculations. To make it even more fun, we will use English units.

Sea level rise:

  • How much has the sea level risen in the last hundred years? It has risen between 4 and 8 inches.
  • What is the average depth of the ocean? NOAA estimates it is 12,100 feet.
  • Therefore, the rise in sea level corresponds to about four inches, that is, one-third of a foot, divided by 12,100 feet; that is, its depth has increased by a factor of 0.0000275. Assuming that the area of the ocean remains unchanged, the volume has also increased by this amount.
  • What is the volume of the ocean? It is 300 million cubic miles.


The volume of the ocean has therefore increased by 825,000 cubic miles.

Volumes of mountain ranges:

Sierra Nevada Mountains:
  • What is the average height of the Sierra Nevada Mountains? Each peak has a different height, but we can use a little over 5,000 feet (one mile) as the average height.
  • What is the area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains? About 24,000 square miles.
  • The volume of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, therefore, is about 24,000 cubic miles, if you count down to sea level. If you count down only to 1,000 feet above sea level, typical of the surrounding area, the volume of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is 19,200 cubic miles.


Rocky Mountains (including Canada)
  • What is the average height of the Rocky Mountains? Many peaks are over 14,000 feet, but we can use about half that amount (7,000 feet, or 1.4 miles) as the average. Many of the trails listed by the National Park Service are over 8,000 feet in elevation [https://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/mileages.htm].
  • What is the area of the Rocky Mountains? About 380,000 square miles.
  • The volume of the Rocky Mountains is, therefore, about 532,000 cubic miles, if you count down to sea level. If you count down to about a mile above sea level, which is the elevation of some cities such as Denver at the base of the mountains, the volume of the Rocky Mountains is 152,000 cubic miles.


Alps:
  • What is the average height of the Alps? The Alps have about a hundred peaks over 13,000 feet. Grenoble, France, near the base of the Alps, is about 700 feet above sea level. We can therefore use about 7000 feet (1.4 miles) as the average elevation of the Alps.
  • What is the area of the Alps? It is about 115,000 square miles.
  • The volume of the Alps is, therefore, about 161,000 cubic miles if you count down to sea level. But if you count only to the base (about the elevation of Grenoble), the volume of the Alps is about 145,000 cubic miles.


Add these three volumes together and you get: the combined volume of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains, and the Alps, is about 316,000 cubic miles. This is only 38% as much as the volume by which the oceans have increased in the last 100 years.



Meanwhile, enter Mo Brooks, Republican representative from Alabama, a member of the House Science Committee. He claimed, in a recent session as reported in Science magazine, that “soil or rock or whatever it is that is deposited into the seas” is causing the observed sea level increase.

Rocks tumbling into the sea? Even if the Sierra Nevadas, the Rockies, and the Alps all fell into the sea, you would get only 38 percent of the observed sea level rise. Rocks tumbling into the sea? Why has nobody seen 825,000 cubic miles of rocks tumble into the sea?

Mo Brooks is on the House Science Committee. At least his theory, that sea level rise is being caused by rocks tumbling into the sea, is less stupid than Dana Rohrabacher’s theory that global warming in the past has been caused by dinosaur farts. Rorabacher is on the Science Committee too.

Of course, my calculations must be all wrong. When a Republican Congressman just makes something up out of thin air, he or she must be right, and all calculations that disagree with them must be wrong.

Four inches doesn’t sound like much, but for the ocean as a whole, that’s a lot of volume. About half of this volume has come from melting land ice, and half from thermal expansion.

It must be wonderful being a Republican. You can just make things up and they instantly become true regardless of any measurements made by any geographers or scientists over the last century. Republicans give themselves God-like, and blasphemous, powers of knowledge.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

On Failing to Change the World


I have been reading The Triumph of Human Empire by Rosalind Williams. The author ties the biographies of Jules Verne, William Morris, and Robert Louis Stevenson around a common theme: Humanity has extended its dominion over every part of the globe, and while this may be inevitable, it results in great losses not only to wild nature but to human nature.

For example, in the writings of Jules Verne, Captain Nemo explores the vast unknown expanses of the oceans, in which he desires to leave behind the conflicts of the human race, which take place on land or on the surface of the sea; but he cannot leave behind his own conflict with the human race. He sees the oceans as the ultimate freedom, but he is not really free. And whether it is Captain Nemo revealing the secrets of the oceans, or riders in a balloon revealing what the unknown center of Africa is like, the very act of exploration brings these wild and unknown spaces into the range of human knowledge and therefore dominion. Verne wanted to explore the unknown world, but at the same time regretted the end of the frontier.

I would like to concentrate on William Morris, a writer about whom I knew literally nothing until I read Williams’ book. He was most famous as one of the leading British socialists of the late nineteenth century. He despised capitalism because it oppressed the poor workers, but also because it substituted cheapness for craftsmanship. He inherited a fortune and also ran a successful interior decorating business, for which he was criticized as being a socialist hypocrite. But he ran his business by artisinal, rather than industrial, standards; he particularly detested artificial dyes, and spent a lot of effort on improving natural dyes.



The triumph of cheapness in the economy was just part of the larger picture of ugliness that was gripping the world, in Morris’ view. He loved the Old Norse sagas, and mourned the loss of ancient heroism. He went to Iceland to see the places where the events in the sagas took place. While there, he was enraptured by the wildness of the volcanic landscape, and enchanted by the relative equality of all the people, country people without a rich class of capitalists. But he also loved sailing up the Thames from dirty London into the agrarian countryside. The countryside was ordered into woodlots and fields, and therefore conquered, but it was still filled with plants and animals. Morris despised the loss of the beauties of a farmed countryside.

So, what did Morris do? He spent a fair amount of time in socialist activism. But he knew that no matter how much he did, socialism would remain an elusive goal: the forces of money and power opposed it, so it didn’t matter whether socialism was better for the people or not. Instead, he spent most of his time writing poems and novels about heroic struggles in faraway or nonexistent lands. That is, he was one of the first prominent writers of fantasy. He was much revered by C. S. Lewis (Perelandra and Narnia) and J. R. R. Tolkein (Hobbit and Lord of the Rings). (Tolkein was also enraptured by the Old Norse sagas.)

This might seem like simple escape. The world is ugly and getting uglier, so we should like in our imaginations. But that is not how Morris saw it. He strongly objected to “escape” as a description of his writings. Instead, what he was doing was to create a vision of what the world could be like, how we could live, if we pursued beauty instead of ugliness. Morris could not convince very many people of socialism, but he got thousands of people to imagine a beautiful world, and many of these, in cumulative small ways, helped to partially reverse the slide toward ugliness. Morris stirred up a feeling of heroism in the minds of thousands; and, through his successor Tolkein, millions.

This is what I am devoting most of my time to, also. I do not spend very much time in political activism. Instead, my main activities are teaching and writing. This summer, my focus is on writing fiction. I have many novels that need to be refined and perfected, and a few that have not yet been written. Am I wasting my time on a dilettante activity while the masses of poor suffer violence and oppression? I hope not. I hope that my writings, about people real or imagined who pursue beauty and peace against massive opposition, will inspire thousands of other people, who will collectively do more to make the world better than I could ever do myself. My fiction is either historical (e.g. about the Cherokee leader Nancy Ward, or about the writer of Ecclesiastes, or about Heloïse and Abélard) or alternative-futures (What would happen if a new Confederacy arose in Oklahoma? What would happen if a man actually tried to quixotically live a life of altruism?) rather than fantasy like the writings of Morris, and I hope that my writings will have more impact than his did (most of which are forgotten today except by scholars).

William Morris failed to change the world. I expect to fail also. But he succeeded, and I hope to succeed, more by writing than would have been possible by a complete devotion to political action. Lots of people can participate in political action, but only I can write the books that are currently dormant on my computer drives. Now that I have finished this essay, that is what I am going to do right now.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Sexual Selection in Dixie

It is pretty much standard fare in the South to see guys driving big pickups around, very loudly, hoping that the girls will be impressed enough to have sex with them, and maybe give them a half dozen kids or so. I know this happens everywhere, but it is particularly common in the South.



I generally have great esteem for women: their capacity for empathy, and often their intelligence, far exceeds that of men. Boys aren’t born inferior, but as they grow up they learn, especially in the South, that empathy and intelligence make them look less manly and might interfere with their chances to impress and impregnate girls.

But sometimes women can make some stupid choices. When a guy drives a big pickup truck around and makes noise and releases a cloud of fumes thick enough that I could run my Prius on them (just the fumes), what does this prove? It only proves that they can push a gas pedal down. It does not prove that they are skillful drivers (I saw one of them get stuck in a ditch, having assumed that his truck was powerful enough to back out of it at a 45-degree slope), nor does it prove that they are rich (the truck might have been bought on credit). Some women actually fall for it. I mean, if it never worked, then guys might stop doing it; natural selection would certainly operate against it. But it works often enough that the dynamo of sexual selection keeps the Dixie stereotype going. The kids pop out and learn to behave like their parents.

Trucks, guns, beer, and sperm: the male characteristics produced by sexual selection in Dixie. The female characteristics? Telling the males how virile they are and having lots of kids. From this list, only the sperm and the kids make any sense from the evolutionary viewpoint. Sexual selection in Dixie certainly does not produce intelligence or skill which might bring wealth or reduce the burden of social problems. This is why Dixie will remain forever poor. In other cultures in America and in other cultures of the world, intelligence and cooperation are sexually desirable traits. The future belongs to those cultures, whether the progressive culture in America, or the prevailing cultures of Europe, China, and Japan.