Science in 2017

It may not be an ‘official’ end-of-year custom, but many folks make lists as New Year approaches.

BBC News made a list of eight “amazing science stories” of 2017.

I can see how the stories are “amazing,” from their viewpoint, and not surprised that they saw a world politics item as scientific. On the other hand, they included one of the ‘gravitational wave’ stories, so I won’t complain.


Admiring and Describing God’s Work

I’ll be talking about the global cooling global warming climate change, so I’d better review why I think it’s an issue.

Also why I think we should ‘do something’ about it — after we learn a great deal more.

Some Christians, Catholics included, think Ussher’s chronology is basically accurate; that this universe is only a few thousand years old. It was pretty good scholarship in the 17th century, given a particular Western worldview. (November 3, 2017; June 30, 2017)

We’ve learned a very great deal since then.

We’ve learned that this universe is immense and ancient. Earth is several billion years old. The knowledge doesn’t bother me a bit. Having an unexpurgated Bible helps, and that’s another topic. (October 29, 2017)

I figure God can handle cosmic scale. Even if I didn’t approve, it wouldn’t make much difference. God’s God, I’m not.

Part of our job is admiring and describing God’s work. (Sirach 17:114; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 283, 341)

Telling the Almighty that it’s built wrong seems silly, at best.

Change Happens

I’m not particularly worried about the latest ‘climate change’ news.

That’s partly because I’ve been following that sort of thing for a half-century. After a while, every ‘crisis’ starts looking pretty much the same; and as likely as the last to blow over.

That said, think ‘climate change’ is real, in the sense that Earth’s climate is changing. I’d be astonished if scientists learned that Earth’s climate stopped changing.

I’m interested in what’s happening on the planet I call home. I also know a bit about what’s happened before ‘now.’

We’ve become accustomed to a “normal” climate, with freezing temperatures during temperate zone winters and comparatively low sea levels.

That’s understandable, since the first of us showed up around the start of Earth’s current ice age. Which reminds me: I’m quite sure that Adam and Eve aren’t German. (September 23, 2016)

The last I checked, most scientists figure we’re in an interglacial period, a temporary ‘warm spell’ before the glaciers return. (November 17, 2017)

Learning

Letting that happen would be awkward, since New York and other major cities would be in the way of growing ice sheets.

The good news, I think, is that we probably have centuries — maybe millennia — to do something.

I’m pretty sure we can, particularly since there’s evidence that we’ve already inadvertently tweaked Earth’s thermostat.

I’d be more comfortable with any ‘climate change’ proposal, if we weren’t looking at a branch of science that’s barely a century old.

We’ve learned quite a bit: and are learning that there’s a very great deal left to learn.

Considering the power we wield, knowing what we’re doing before making major changes seems prudent.

“Little Less than a God”

Even if I hadn’t been following ‘science news’ since my youth, I’d think we have great power over this world.

Given recent ‘lords of creation’ nonsense, I’d better explain.

We’ve known that we’re hot stuff for a very long time.

“What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?
“Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor.”
(Psalms 8:56)

We’re made “in the image of God” — with authority over this world. (Genesis 1:2628; Catechism, 16)

Limited authority. We don’t own the place. Our job, part of it, is looking after this world: for our reasoned use and for future generations. (Genesis 2:58; Catechism, 339, 356358, 2402, 24152418, 2456)

Our position is like a steward’s or foreman’s: responsible for maintenance and operation, with authority needed to do the job. God is the owner.

Under the circumstances, our power and responsibility most definitely does not encourage complacent smugness.

Daunting Responsibilities

I’ve suspected that a sense of our power may be behind the enduring fear that God will smite us if we use the brains God gave us. Or that we’ll incur the wrath of Mother Nature. (November 17, 2017; August 21, 2016; July 31, 2016)

Being “little less than a god” is scary, at least for those who appreciate what can happen when we misuse our power.

I don’t see a problem with science, since I think noticing beauty and order in the universe is a good idea. So is learning its natural laws, and using that knowledge: wisely. (Catechism, 16, 341, 373, 1704, 17301731, 2293)

Fearing new ideas seems like a bad idea.

So does rushing into overly-enthusiastic experiments. Ideally, Richmann’s lethal encounter with lightning would have taught scientists, in his generation and all that followed, that following reasonable safety protocols makes sense.

We don’t live in an ideal world, so two scientists died a few decades back — after working with a mass of plutonium. (October 16, 2016)


BBC’s Top Eight ‘Science Stories’


(From PA, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Artist’s impression of two neutron stars colliding”
(BBC News))

Eight amazing science stories of 2017
(December 25, 2017)

It was a year of endings and beginnings: the plucky Cassini spacecraft’s 13-year-long mission reached its finale, while the fledgling field of gravitational wave astronomy bagged the catastrophic collision of two dead stars.

“BBC News looks back on eight of the biggest science and environment stories of 2017….”

One of the “environment” stories is more political than scientific.

Inevitable, I suppose, given the remarkable devotion to a particular view that most traditional media exhibits.

America withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement is significant, particularly for folks following United Nations news. There is a ‘science’ angle to the story, since the Paris agreement depends on belief in a particular analysis of some climate data.

There’s been other interesting ‘environment’ news, too. Some may be significant. A few items involve the Paris agreement, but don’t encourage blind faith in it. (August 11, 2017; November 17, 2017; February 17, 2017)

Other than including a piece that’s much more politics than science, I think the BBC News editors did a pretty good job with their ‘top eight’ list:

  1. Star crash
  2. Cassini’s final bow
  3. Paris pull-out
  4. Multiple “Earths”
  5. Recent relative
  6. Dark skies
  7. Visitor from beyond
  8. Giant iceberg

I generally don’t make lists: mostly because it’s hard to see what will be most important as time passes, or pick one or two categories. Besides, it would take time. I’m almost always looking at what’s happening ‘now’ and what may be coming.

But since I see one of the BBC News ‘science’ stories was mostly political, I figured I should suggest a few alternatives. That comes later.

Real Issues

About items 3 and 8, “Paris pull-out” and “Giant iceberg,” I’m as concerned about environmental issues as I was in the 1960s.

I thought fouling the air and water we need was a bad idea then, and still do. My opinion of activism’s lunatic fringe hasn’t changed much either.

I’ve become interested in what’s currently called “climate change.” The coming ice age was more of a science geek thing in my youth: fun, but not significant. (January 20, 2017)

I see collecting and analyzing data about Earth’s climate as a good idea. Acting on part of what we’re learning, not so much.

Thinking we should take good care of this world isn’t even even close to being in a blind panic over the crisis du jour, or denying that problems exist.

I have some respect for folks who take a deep breath and think before acting, or whose ‘environmental activism’ includes other concerns.

Berta Caceres’s main concern was defending the culture and rights of Lenca.

She insisted that folks who owned and lived on land should be consulted before it was used as a site for power plants. That resulted in her being called an environmental activist, and got her killed. (August 11, 2017)

Any ‘top’ list tends to be subjective. Even those involving strictly quantifiable information. Someone decides the subject and criteria.


Some Answers, Many Questions

I’d have picked the whole gravitational astronomy field as a ‘top’ item.

Three scientists won the year’s Nobel prize in physics for the first solid detection. That’s huge news for folks interested in astronomy and physics.

We’ve detected more gravitational wave events since then, including a set from colliding neutron stars.

We’re learning that some models for colliding objects were a pretty good fit with observations. We’re also collecting an intriguing number of new questions, which is just as satisfying. Maybe more.

Quite a few folks, scientists included, realize that we don’t know everything. I think finding new questions is at least as important as answering old ones.

We won’t learn what the rest of what this wonder-filled universe holds, if we don’t know what we’re looking for. Or at least have a clue.

I think our first ‘look’ at the gravitational wave spectrum is on a par with Galileo’s telescope. (October 20, 2017; October 3, 2017; June 2, 2017; June 2, 2017)

In importance, anyway. We still can’t get gravitational wave ‘images.’ I’m mildly surprised that I haven’t found any discussion of how to make that work. Not informed ones, at any rate. I suppose it’s early days. Just detecting gravitational waves has been a challenge.

A Few More ‘Big Deals in Science’

There’s no shortage of candidates for ‘top science stories’ lists. Quite a bit has happened in the last year.

In the last century, for that matter. (November 3, 2017)

Some developments will be more significant that others. Folks living a few centuries from now will almost certainly put the first gravitational wave observatories in their ‘top’ lists.

Recent quantum entanglement research may or may not be as important as efforts to detect luminiferous aether with Michelson-Morley interferometers. (October 6, 2017)

What we’ve learned by December 31, 2517 will help sort out what’s significant and what’s not so much in my ‘big deals in science, 2017’ list:

Oops

Weather modification was a very promising field from the 1940s to early 1970s. Expecting an end of droughts and destructive storms wasn’t unreasonable.

There were setbacks, of course, including a modified hurricane making a U-turn.

Scientists were allowed to issue warnings, so only one person died. It’s one too many, but the death toll could have been much higher. That was in 1947. (November 10, 2017)

Learning that commoners won’t panic if told there’s danger coming didn’t quite sink in, though. It took a remarkably lethal tornado outbreak in 1953 for the Weather Service to get reorganized — with new rules. We do learn. Slowly. (August 11, 2017)

The 1947 hurricane test may not have made the storm turn around. A recent analysis suggests that the altered parts of the storm may not have stayed altered long enough to make a difference. As I keep saying, we’re still learning.

I haven’t heard of any weather modification experiments on more than a very small scale, or in remote locations, since 1972. That’s when the Institute of Atmospheric Sciences tested a newish technique on a storm in the Upper Midwest.

The storm then destroyed part of a Rapid City, South Dakota, suburb. About 238 folks were killed. Some bodies were never recovered.

American courts eventually decided that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove legal responsibility, but scientists got very careful after that. (May 26, 2017)

I think we will, eventually, learn to control weather on a regional and global scale. We’ll also be deciding what we think Earth’s ‘normal’ climates should be.

But since we’re living in the only currently available place for field experiments, I think we should learn a great deal more before the first test.

“…As a Grain from a Balance….”

The lesson from weather modification experiments and taking shortcuts while handling plutonium is not, I think, that we must shun tampering with ‘things man was not supposed to know.’

No matter how much we learn, I’m certain that we won’t learn ‘too much.’ I don’t think that’s possible, or that we’ll run out of new puzzles.

God’s universe is vast and ancient, and keeps looking bigger and older as we learn more.

We’re born with a thirst for knowledge, and live in a wonder-filled universe. Using what we learn wisely is important. So is seeking knowledge.

More science in 2017:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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4 Responses to Science in 2017

  1. Brian, I have been educated, informed and enthralled whilst reading your latest contribution. It is reading layer upon layer of fascinating science and religion, wrapped up in intelligent humour. As a dyslexic who constantly thinks laterally, I appreciate the output of your mind and the work involved to make it all look so simple!

    • Wow. High praise! Thank you, David. There’s some effort needed to put these together. It helps that the ideas are, essentially, simple. Part of the trick is looking at them from the right angle. And noticing that angle. 😉

  2. irishbrigid says:

    I think you may be reading too much British material. Us Americans put commas *inside* quotation marks: “About items 3 and 8, “Paris pull-out” and “Giant iceberg”, I’m as”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

    P.S. I think glaciers are forming outside my window. Was that a wooly mammoth?

    P.P.S. The caution of weather-modification scientists reminds me of NASA after Apollo 13. They didn’t have *proof* that the number 13 had anything to do with it, but just to be on the safe side… They *still* don’t have anything with that number on them, even as part of a larger serial number.

    • I say! Quite, what? Found and fixed.

      About “13” and mammoths and playing it safe – – – indeed. 🙂 There’s a difference, I think, between being superstitious and acknowledging human nature’s variable preference for ‘playing it safe.’ Then there’s the fellow who’s so adamantly *not* superstitious that he goes around looking for sidewalk cracks to step on, and that’s another topic.

Thanks for taking time to comment!