Sunday, February 27, 2011

Something (Relatively) Positive

Berkeley Earth Project

Recently, I've been reading The 4% Universe, a story of the development of the dominant modern currents in cosmology -- the formation, development, and ultimate fate of the Universe we inhabit, whether we'd like to ignore it or not.

It's a story of the astronomers and physicists (and their long-suffering post-doctoral assistants) who theorized, made the observations, worked with the data, and collectively reached a conclusion: That at present we can only account for some four per cent of all matter in the Universe -- the remainder consisting of "dark matter", which is only beginning to be understood, and that in a theoretical sense.

Why is this important? Go here, and buckle up.

One of the physicists involved in the story is Professor Richard Muller. In 1964, as an undergraduate, he was part of the original FSM (Free Speech Movement)at UC Berkeley, which culminated in the occupation of Sproul Hall, and the inevitable Bust.

Muller went on to a PhD in Physics, and may be the only FSM alumni who is now a tenured faculty member of the university which had him arrested 47 years ago. Through his work on Dark Matter and several other projects, Dr. Muller has earned a reputation as a good scientist -- Thorough, empirical, rigorous in demanding a high quality of data; and not as easy a job description as it sounds.

By chance, I came across an article in the UK Guardian online about his newest project -- just about to come to fruition:
[Muller's] list of publications is testament to the free rein of tenure: he worked on the first light from the big bang, proposed a new theory of ice ages, and found evidence for an upturn in impact craters on the moon. His expertise is highly sought after. For more than 30 years, he was a member of the independent Jason group that advises the US government on defense; his college lecture series, Physics for Future Presidents, was voted best class on campus, went stratospheric on YouTube and, in 2009, was turned into a bestseller.

For the past year, Muller has kept a low profile, working quietly on a new project with a team of academics hand-picked for their skills. They meet on campus regularly, to check progress, thrash out problems and hunt for oversights that might undermine their work. And for good reason. When Muller and his team go public with their findings in a few weeks, they will be muscling in on the ugliest and most hard-fought debate of modern times.

Muller calls his latest obsession the Berkeley Earth project. The aim is so simple that the complexity and magnitude of the undertaking is easy to miss. Starting from scratch, with new computer tools and more data than has ever been used, they will arrive at an independent assessment of global warming. The team will also make every piece of data it uses – 1.6bn data points – freely available on a website. It will post its workings alongside, including full information on how more than 100 years of data from thousands of instruments around the world are stitched together to give a historic record of the planet's temperature.

Muller is fed up with the politicized row that all too often engulfs climate science. By laying all its data and workings out in the open, where they can be checked and challenged by anyone, the Berkeley team hopes to achieve something remarkable: a broader consensus on global warming. In no other field would Muller's dream seem so ambitious, or perhaps, so naive.

The Guardian continued that Muller is clear the Earth Project will not provide a definitive answer regarding Global Warming, but is convinced that his approach will lead to a better assessment of climactic changes.

The project's team will present the billion-plus pieces of temperature data they've collected, and explain their method in reconciling it -- which they will have to explain and defend through peer examination, discussion and debate; and that's just within the scientific community.

"I've told the team I don't know if global warming is more or less than we hear," Muller told the Guardian, "But I do believe we can get a more precise number, and we can do it in a way that will cool the arguments over climate change, if nothing else... Science has its weaknesses, and it doesn't have a stranglehold on the truth, but it has a way of approaching technical issues that is a closer approximation of truth than any other method we have."

The concept that Climate change and Global Warming are real has been challenged, over and over -- primarily by corporate interests, and critics whose allegiances are to an ideology or religious belief over empirical evidence.

What impressed me about 4% Universe, and Muller's role in determining an answer to a specific set of scientific questions about the nature of that Universe, was how willing he was to follow Bertrand Russell's dictum of going where the data takes you, and not taking the data where you would prefer it goes -- a decent definition of 'Bad Science'.

I'll be very curious to see the conclusions, and details about how they were reached -- but given the project's genesis, I have confidence that the conclusions will have been arrived at through Good Science: Thorough, empirical, the result of rigorous internal debate, and in the spirit of adding to (instead of subtracting from) the sum of human knowledge.