Is science sometimes in danger of getting tunnel vision? Recently published ebook author, Ian Miller, looks at other possible theories arising from data that we think we understand. Can looking problems in a different light give scientists a different perspective?

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The decision to do something is always preceded by a theory, which usually involves a proposition of the "if … then" form, i.e. if I do A and the conditions G apply, then the outcome P will follow. The premise of this blog is that there are usually alternatives B, C, D . . .  What we want is for our politicians to make the best choice from the set of alternatives, but if scientists want decisions to be made based on evidence, then they must provide the necessary information to the decision makers and the public in a form they can understand. I think you are a little deluded if you think that happens often enough.
 
Consider the issue of carbon dioxide storage. On one side, the coal industry states: if all the carbon dioxide made by burning coal is buried permanently, then there is no adverse environmental effect from that carbon dioxide, therefore we can continue burning coal. Based on what is available to the general public, is this sound policy or a case of "Out of sight, out of mind"?
 
Compound propositions such as that are usually bad; the proper procedure is to separate the steps, then draw conclusions by procedure rather than lurch into it. Suppose we rewrite the first part as: if all the carbon dioxide made by burning coal is buried permanently, then there is no adverse environmental effect from that carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. I think that is justifiable, but there is a subtle difference.
 
One problem involves the word "permanent". Where do we store it? If it is deep enough, say, approaching 1 km, the pressure will convert the gas into a supercritical fluid. The ideal situation is isolation by containment by non-permeable rock, but how easy is it really to find that? Something that traps heavy oil does not necessarily trap supercritical carbon dioxide. Can we guarantee it will not travel through porous rock, or, if an old oil structure is used, through an abandoned well whose cap fails? What about faults or breaks in rock structure? I would question anyone who states we know where all the faults are. As evidence, Christchurch in New Zealand is now undergoing an extremely prolonged sequence of earthquakes, due to a sequence of faults that were completely unknown two years ago. They are now being found because they are active; inactive faults can go undetected for a very long time. Suppose the carbon dioxide clathrates in water, and suppose the clathrate can move to a region of lower pressure? Could the resultant decomposition of the clathrate widen a gap, and thus accelerate leakage?
 
The ultimate in containment would be where it reacts with rocks to form carbonates. Olivine is one of the better weathering rocks, while peridotite (an olivine/pyroxene blend) in Oman apparently weathers very quickly. The problem, of course, is that basalt is not one of the easiest rocks in which to find storage spaces and it is somewhat unyielding while the world's emissions are not centred on Oman.
 
Does this process make sense other than as a special case? Old oil fields are often cited as disposal points, but these are often far from coal burning plants, and very frequently there will have been a number of test wells drilled which are sealed with unknown reliability. The oil is usually under sandstone, which usually comprises the remains of weathered rock. The collection, transport, compression and injection of the carbon dioxide requires considerable energy (I have seen an estimate that almost 30% more power stations are required.) and the construction of the necessary pressurized piping also generates carbon dioxide.
 
The issue here is, if the public decide to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere, is this concept a sensible part of the solution, or is it simply "smoke and mirrors"? Are scientists making all the relevant information available to the public on this matter? If a member of the public wants to find out what is critical, can he or she? You may protest that my analysis above is superficial, but if I cannot readily find what is needed to reach a proper conclusion, how can the public? If you argue the public does not matter, then you must argue against democracy. In my opinion, if science is to make a proper impression on our future, scientists have to lift their game.
Posted by Ian Miller on Jun 21, 2011 11:05 PM BST
If your goals include getting rich, getting promoted, winning prizes etc, time spent developing theories appears to be time wasted. Nevertheless, if you are really interested in science, there are two good reasons to do so. The first is, you do not need expensive equipment, although you certainly need access to a good library, and you can do it in your spare time. Einstein did his most productive work as a patent clerk. The second is, while all scientists experience emotional highs (success!) and lows (oops, another failure!), for the experimentalist these usually come at the end of the experiment. For the theoretician the highs can come at almost any time later, and from most surprising sources. Further, after a time you do not suffer lows; if you are found to be wrong after a reasonable length of time, at least you can persuade yourself that you persuaded someone to do something they would not have otherwise done, hence you have advanced science a little, even if not for the best of reasons. I hope the reader will forgive me because I would like to illustrate how unexpected emotional rewards can come with something that has happened to me. This arose from what I regard as a most unexpected experimental result, which goes to the heart of quantum mechanics.
 
Up until last week, I believe most physical scientists would have stated that the wave function is not a physical entity, but rather a mathematical construct whose square represents a probability distribution associated with the outcome of a determination. After all, how else does renormalization make sense? You cannot renormalize a bucket of water! That was before Lundeen et al. (Nature, 474, 188-191) published a clearly remarkable achievement: they measured the wave function of photons, determining the real part through a rotation of the polarization and the complex part through the ellipticity. Effectively, the authors say, you could construct a "wave function meter", and they propose that you could measure the wave function associated with electron motion in atoms and molecules.
 
I have two reasons to be excited. The first is, to make a measurement of both the real and complex parts of the wave surely it has to be something, and not simply a construct. As the cover of Nature said, "Direct measurement prompts the question, what is it?" The relevance to me is that in my ebook, I have over 70 problems for exercises in the development of theory, and in the more difficult ones, there is a sequence that develops yet a further interpretation of quantum mechanics (there are at least 6 others) in which the reader is offered the chance to obtain quantum mechanics from one deeper principle, including obtaining the Schrodinger equation, the Uncertainty Principle, the Exclusion Principle, and also to note why the Complementarity Principle could in principle be got around, which is what these authors did. In the solutions I give, the wave is a physical entity, the square of the amplitude of which represents the energy associated with the particle (the square of the amplitude of all other waves represents the energy associated with the vibration), although it probably vibrates in additional dimensions, thus taking it into the concepts of string theory. This theory may or may not be correct, but as far as I am aware, it is the only one for which the wave function is "something" with a clearly physical and determinable variable associated with it.
 
The second reason is that I am an advocate for atomic orbitals of multi-electron atoms that differ from the usual wave functions that correspond to excited states of hydrogen [Aust. J. Phys. 40 : 329 -346 (1987)] in that the ground state orbitals do not have radial nodes (thus solving the problem, how do electrons cross them!) and the resultant excited states have the nodes required for excitation added to them. I doubt that the methodology outlined by Lundeen et al. will really work on atomic orbitals, but if one thing is clear in science these days it is that if there is no sound reason why something cannot be done, sooner or later it will be. There is real excitement in the realization that something you proposed could be proven true one day. (Yes, it could be proven false, but that is just one of those chances you have to take.)
 
The point that I want to make is that for young scientists starting their career, while it may not help your social standing, especially in the short term, there is the possibility of experiencing quite unique feelings. And if you think there is nothing left to theorize about, if something as fundamental as the standard interpretation of the quantal wave function can be overturned by an experiment, so can a lot of other "tablets of stone". You may or may not be right, but you will stay interested.
Posted by Ian Miller on Jun 14, 2011 3:25 AM BST

The logic behind climate change seems to be, greenhouse gases trap heat, the planet is warming because of the heat trapped by these greenhouse gases , therefore if we reduce our greenhouse emissions, we can maintain our current lifestyle, more or less. There is little doubt that greenhouse gases trap heat, there is little doubt that the planet is warming, but are these really the issues? In my opinion, the real questions are, what are we going to do about it, and is current science going about the answering of that question in the right way?

 

In my first blog I mentioned that the Greenland ice sheet had melted in the previous four interglacials, with a corresponding rise of sea levels of about seven metres. What I did not mention was that this sea level rise began to start approximately 10,000 years after the demise of the Canadian ice sheet. If this cycle is a repeat of the last one, we expect to see the sea levels start rising about now, and they seem to be doing that.

 

So, what can we do about the future rising sea levels? What science should be doing is to provide evidence that falsifies the above conclusions, or failing that, recommend that we move our cities or work on alternative options. What is science doing? The main efforts seem to be in modeling that give uncertain predictions, and we are gathering data furiously, measuring various emissions, many of which we cannot do much about anyway. These are followed by calls to reduce emissions, an approach that reminds me of the self-flagellating penitents in Bergmann movies set in mediaeval times. The message seems to be that if we maximize the punishment for our errant ways, somehow our sins will be forgiven. In my opinion, all self-flagellation achieves is a sore back, which appears to be slightly more than the appeals to reduce carbon emissions are currently achieving. Carbon emissions apparently increased by 5% last year and with the savaging of nuclear power following what appears to be a certain degree of incompetence, carbon emissions are almost certain to increase. (Why a nuclear power station had to be shut down when it was still working is unexplained. Why it was completely shut down is even more incomprehensible, given that it needed electricity to operate it. Why not leave one reactor going, just in case, and use its own power? They knew they were in tsunami territory, and they knew their emergency generators were downhill.) So what we see is that provided we wave a slogan (reduce emissions) everything will be all right, even if we do not actually achieve what the slogan requires. 

 

The obvious conclusion is that only geoengineering can permit us to defend the coastline in approximately its current position. There is, of course, no guarantee that it can, but surely the scientific method suggests we should investigate the possibility, even if only at a theoretical level. However, what we find is that geoengineering is usually rejected as being unnecessary.

 

Another reason for rejecting geoengineering is that "we don't know what the unintended consequences will be".  That is almost certainly correct, but given that a rise of sea levels of several tens of metres, which is quite possible with carbon dioxide levels at 450 ppm, surely we should make the effort to try to understand? However, we are not, seemingly because there is far too little funding of the necessary research. Why not? I have a theory on that too, but before I try that out, has anybody else any ideas?

Posted by Ian Miller on Jun 7, 2011 3:14 AM BST
Chris Satterley raised a number of interesting points, and I shall comment on one of those here. He stated that global warming modelers are frequently asked, "What are your assumptions?" My issue is, if there is doubt about an assumption, will anybody do anything about it? I would like to explain, using an example from my own past, why I am a little skeptical. (This is most certainly not a whinge. The only reason I raise it is that I know the details.)
 
Early in my career, I was interested in strained molecules, and consequently I became interested in bond bending. Some time ago I went to a conference and in a session where there was nothing particularly relevant to my direct interests, I sat in on a session on molecular mechanics. In the presentations, bond bending was modeled on the assumption that it was simple harmonic, in which restoring force is proportional to deformation, hence the energy of the deformation is proportional to the square of the deformation in radians.
 
So, what else could it be? Consider a C-H bond in methane, in its equilibrium position. If a plane is drawn through the carbon atom normal to that bond, all the other bonds are on the distal side of the plane, and the charge distribution is more or less symmetrical. To my mind, that indicated that the repulsive force should be along the line of the bond, and to the extent that the deformations did not remove the symmetry, the dynamics would be similar to those of a pendulum, in which case the deformation energy would depend on the sine of the angle of deformation. If anyone is interested, the calculation of overtones was quite respectable (at least in my opinion) for a very few limited molecules (Aust J. Chem 22: 2575-2580).
 
The point of all this is, when I raised this to one of the main speakers, (a) he hadn't heard of this alternative, but more importantly, (b) he was not going to do anything about it. Why not? My view is that it depends on funding. The main function of a project leader is to get the project funded. While the nature of this problem varies from country to country, usually some form of performance review is required. I doubt anybody has the nerve to write in a fund application that they intend to turn over the last ten years' work to determine whether a primary assumption was wrong when during that ten years they have been funded based on their "remarkably good" results. (The fact that there are so many validation constants in the programs is beside the point.) Of course, there should be some form of evaluation of scientists' performances, but I am far from convinced that the current methodology is good for science. The problem is, this procedure is almost designed to lock in any previous incorrect assumptions, and while I am sure that was never the intention, it is one of the unfortunate unwanted consequences. Yes, pointing out a problem is easy; solving it is not, nevertheless, pointing it out may be a start.
 
This may seem harmless, and some may think, even if the underpinning relationships are wrong, if your models reproduce observation, does it matter? To me, the answer is, yes. The problem arises when the model is taken into new territory. The most successful theory, at least in terms of time over which good results were always predicted, was the model of Claudius Ptolemy. It always predicted where the planets would be, when the eclipses would be, etc. However, because it is wrong, if NASA used it for manned flights there would be a lot of dead astronauts. In this bond bending example, maybe it doesn't matter if we don't know exactly why certain polymer solutions have certain properties, but suppose we want to devise new biocatalysts – effectively, synthetic enzymes. Would it not be desirable that we know what we are doing?
Posted by Ian Miller on May 23, 2011 3:28 AM BST
Recently I published an ebook (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004XMQH7Q) that looks at theory in the physical sciences, and in this blog I would like to expand on some of those thoughts. One of the assertions I made was that in general, most scientists have no formal training in the forming and analysis of theories. There will be some who have done a course in philosophy, but even most doctors of philosophy have never done any formal courses in philosophy. Maybe I am wrong; if so, let me know. Another point that I made is that since the announcement of the Woodward Hoffmann rules, there has been no significant development in theory in chemistry, despite the fact that more chemists have worked after that time than before it. By significant, I also mean that it has made a major influence on chemistry at large. I expect to hear some disagreement on that point, however while there may be exceptions, I believe it stands as essentially valid. I also made a speculative explanation, through the observation that the chemical theory we use is essentially BP, i.e. before polywater. After that debacle, I believe we have gone "theory-shy". (We have refined computational procedures, but that is not the same thing.)
 
In my opinion, the methodology for forming and analyzing theories were laid down by Aristotle, but when Galileo proved Aristotle's cosmology was just plain wrong, with the bath water, out went the baby. What I find fascinating about this is that most of the criticism comes from people who have not actually read what Aristotle wrote. Aristotle's cosmology was wrong, but ironically it came from his ignoring his own advice (possibly because Physica was probably one of the first books he wrote, and he had not finalized his logic). Aristotle was probably the first to emphasize that any theory must be fully in accord with observation, and given that, and assuming that Aristotle made one key error by failing to apply his own methodology (and then this caused all the rest) the reader might wish to contemplate what that error was. (My answer in due course.)
 
Why is this important? Consider a current issue: global warming. From the following references:
Vernol, A. de, Hillaire-Marcel, C. 2008. Science 320: 1622-25.
Kopp, R. E. et al. 2009. Nature 462: 863-867.
Tripati, A.K. et al. 2009.  Science 326: 1394-1397.
The Aristotelian would state:
(a)  In each of the last four interglacials, the sea levels rose approximately 7 meters higher than now.
(b) At each maximum, the carbon dioxide levels were approximately 280
ppm.
He would also note:
(c)  Carbon dioxide levels are now about 380 ppm.
 
Now, either carbon dioxide levels are relevant to the sea level or they are not. If they are not, then it is pointless defending against sea level rises by trying to hold carbon dioxide levels to 450 ppm, the current IPCC target. If they are, then sea levels will rise eventually if the levels are 280 ppm, so again it is pointless to attempt to hold the levels to 450 ppm.  This leads to a clear conclusion: attempting to hold carbon dioxide levels to 450 ppm, or even 350 ppm as advocated by James Hansen, will not by itself prevent sea level rising, unless it was never going to rise anyway this cycle.

Thus looking at the problem in a slightly different way leads to an entirely different conclusion from that obtained from modeling, where the answer is somewhat critically dependent on the assumptions. That does not make the conclusion correct, but it does give guidance on what to do next.
Posted by Ian Miller on May 17, 2011 4:34 AM BST
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