The uncertainty paradox
The primacy of doubt: From quantum physics to climate change: how the science of uncertainty can help us make sense of our chaotic world
by Tim Palmer
Essential Books, 2022 ($30)
Certainty is the currency of politics and social media, where breaking down complex issues into simple, bite-sized nuggets is now the norm. In his new book the primacy of doubt, Climate physicist Tim Palmer argues that the science of uncertainty is woefully underappreciated by the public, despite being central to almost every field of research. Accepting uncertainty and harnessing the “science of chaos,” he says, could help us gain new insights into the world, from climate change to emerging diseases to the next economic crash.
The first section is a dense discussion of important physics issues and concepts, illustrating, among other things, how systems can go from a stable state to a wildly chaotic state without warning, but the book picks up steam when Palmer gets concrete with accessibility, everyday examples . The hottest chapter is a crash course in weather forecasting, a process Palmer helped modernize. He examines the history of forecasting, beginning with the first public storm warning in 1861 using data from telegraph stations across Britain, and leads us to ENIAC, the first programmable electronic computer.
Such efforts paved the way for the probabilistic forecasts used today, which predict the likelihood of rain in any given hour and provide the “cone of uncertainty” for hurricane tracks. This backstory puts our weather apps in a new light: if we needed certainty to make decisions, these tools wouldn’t exist.
Palmer is also an important contributor to improving climate models and is one of the researchers who received the 2007 Nobel Prize for authoring the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. However, his chapter on the subject is mixed. It excels at explaining evolving research areas where reducing uncertainty is key to discovering how bad things could get, e.g. B. whether clouds will accelerate or slow down warming. Palmer suggests some interesting ways to make the most of, and in some cases resolve, the uncertainty, notably calling for a “CERN for climate change” that would focus on modeling how rising carbon dioxide and natural changes in the climate will affect the climate Climates will interact regionally over the next few decades (rather than globally over the course of the century). This could help predict long-term droughts in Africa’s Sahel, for example, and give governments and humanitarian organizations a head start to stave off famine.
But Palmer struggles to capture both the uncertainties of climate change and the severity of its impacts. He completes the chapter (subtitled “Disaster or just lukewarm?”) by defaulting to a two-way approach: Are the “maximalists” right when they suggest we are in dire straits, and as much and as quickly as possible should decarbonize, or are the “minimalists” right when they say that uncertainty is a reason to delay action? The truth, he writes, lies somewhere in the middle. Palmer notes that just doubling the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide would warm the planet by one degree Celsius. (Excluding feedback loops it might cause, such as losing ice sheet or more water vapor in the atmosphere, which would further increase the heat.) That’s, he says, “maybe not a big deal.”
But look at a planet that is already a degree warmer today than it was in pre-industrial times, and the sight is quite alarming. This gradual shift has fueled unprecedented heatwaves on every continent, setting the American West ablaze with ferocious intensity and causing deadly flooding in areas that have never experienced back-to-back extreme rainfall. Furthermore, the recent IPCC report, which Palmer should urge his readers to refer to, paints an increasingly bleak picture that seems to support a maximalist view. Camille Parmesan, an ecologist at the University of Texas at Austin and one of the lead authors of this report, said in February 2022: “We see that adverse impacts are much more widespread and much more negative than previous reports anticipated. ”The primacy of doubt is a compelling argument for either reducing the uncertainty or working with confidence in the “reliability” of the remaining uncertainty. But it can obscure the much larger picture of climate Action. It’s impossible not to ponder how overlooking such nuances could lead readers to seek reasons to dismiss the urgency of new climate policy.
Scientific American the book by columnist Naomi Oreskes and historian of science Erik M. Conway trader of doubt, together with exhaustive journalistic and scientific research, has shown how the fossil fuel industry, conservative politicians and a tiny cadre of scientists have played insecurity with the intention of delaying meaningful carbon regulation in the US. Palmer acknowledges this with a reckless neutrality, saying: We should be wary of inflating uncertainty as much as we should be wary of attempts to make predictions more certain than can be warranted.” In doing so, he unwittingly brushes aside the reality that uncertainty all too often tends to be against society is deemed to be used to its advantage. – Brian Khan
brian kahn is an award-winning author and editor. He is the climate editor of the tech site Protocol.
The future is female! Vol. 2: The 1970s: More Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women
by Lisa Yaszek
Library of America, 2022 ($27.95)
The first in the Library of America’s The Future Is Female series collected science fiction stories written by women, from the pulp fiction era to the year of the moon landing. It ended with a stunning 1969 story by Ursula K. Le Guin that dared to suggest that our space-age future might be an alienating burden. Le Guin’s Nine Lives explores the loneliness of astronauts and clones alike, suggesting that advanced technology and interplanetary adventures may make true human connections even rarer. It not only envisioned what the future might look like, but also how we might feel in it.
This framework doubles in volume two, also edited by Lisa Yaszek, in which women science fiction writers in the 1970s grapple with themes of sex, power, the mundane routines of domestic life, and whether civilizations will ever be true being able to achieve equality. While Nine Lives still focused on men and offered thrills, the avowed feminist stories here (including a Le Guin classic about the aged leader of an anarchist revolution who looks back as her movement bears fruit) focus on women, whose decisions of corporations that are strikingly similar or strikingly dissimilar to our own.
The results are still shocking, 50 years later. Doris Piserchia’s “Pale Hands” is set in 2021, when humanity is faced with a dire problem of overpopulation, and is narrated by the cleaning lady of the state’s masturbation stands. Nebula Award winner Joanna Russ’s “When It Changed” finds a planet where women have thrived without men for 30 generations, suddenly reintroducing what a newly arrived male astronaut calls “sexual equality.” (“Seals are harem bulls,” he says, “and so are men.” In the kickoff story “Bitching It,” Sonya Dorman imagines the bored rut of housewives in a world where women have to behave like alpha dogs in heat and men accept it passively.
Other works in this bold collection delve into the superficial sharpness of what we know today as influencer culture, such as in the prescient ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’ by the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. Both Joan D. Vinge’s ‘View from a Height” and Cynthia Felice’s “No One Said Forever” detail what a woman must give up in order to be free to embark on old-school adventures. And as Eleanor Arnason’s The Warlord of Saturn’s Moons dramatizes a science fiction writer’s efforts to write a story that grows richer the more she draws from her own life, she encapsulates these writers’ mission to transform the genre to claim passionate self-expression. In her hands, the future isn’t just feminine, it’s personal. —Alan Scherstuhl
A guide to the stars
Princeton University Press, 2022 ($27.95)
What will it take to explore a distant star in 100 years? To shed light on the implications (and ethics) of sending people light-years from home, NASA scientist Les Johnson helps us digest startling numbers — the distance between stars, the energy required to travel that far — and at the same time to show the possibilities and limitations of existing technologies. Whether we get there with solar sails, ion engines, or atomic bombs, the advances we’re making in the quest for interstellar travel are likely to change the way we live on Earth, too. After all, we wouldn’t have electricity or cell phones “if our predecessors hadn’t done science for science’s sake”. —Fionna MD Samuels
Nineteen ways of looking at consciousness
by Patrick Haus.
St. Martin’s Press, 2022 ($26.99)
Fortunately, this book does not attempt to explain what consciousness is, how it arises, or why. Instead, neuroscientist Patrick House outlines an outline of how we might look at ourselves from within through wittily rendered observations from neuroscience, quantum mechanics, and beyond. Recurring examples – like the odd case of a teenager laughing during brain surgery – give a glimpse of the questions that might help us understand how our cells collectively summon our selves. As befits a phenomenon that still eludes a unified theory, House’s collage paints a picture of our mind that is far more nuanced and confusing than the sum of its parts. —Sasha Warren
Darwin’s love of life: A unique case of biophilia
by Kay Harel. Columbia University Press, 2022 ($26)
In these gentle but stirring essays, writer Kay Harel cheerfully diagnoses Charles Darwin as “a unique case of biophilia,” or a deep love of life that inspires empathy, creativity, and an intuitive sense of truth. Harel posits biophilia as the root of Darwin’s genius and the influence of his love of dogs and fascination with insectivores Drosera his rejection of mind-body duality and his feeling that estimates of the age of the earth would one day coincide with the time span of evolution. Harel’s focus on the confluences of Darwin’s life rather than his conflicts offers a refreshing take on his legacy. —Dana Dunham