Snow, satellites and science

By , 8 January 2010 6:45 pm

I really do not know who reads these blogs. All sorts of people seem to dip on and off without me being aware of it. Anyway, for those who do not live in the British Isles, it’s been cold here. In fact since Christmas it’s been persistently very cold. It is eloquently summed up in the photograph below from Nasa’s Terra satellite. I added the red blob for normally mild Swansea where the cold has been almost unprecedented. Snow fell on my car on Tuesday and is still on it on Friday afternoon despite me having travelled about 30 miles in the intervening period. Many of you who live in harsher climes will no doubt snigger at we Brits throwing up our gloved hands in horror at temperatures of a mere -10oC. Well, we just aren’t prepared for it.

Britain in snow

A couple of observations. First there has been much discussion as to whether this demonstrates that worries about global warming are misplaced. The answer is surely a long the lines of, if one swallow does not make a summer then one cold snap does not make a new Ice Age. The larger-scale and longer term evidence still, to my mind, suggests global warming. I gather, for instance, that at the moment parts of Alaska are warmer than Florida. Nevertheless, I am somewhat uneasy about the way that meteorology seems incapable of medium-term prediction. To my knowledge no one predicted the worst cold spell for either 30 or 47 years (depending on who you talk to). In fact our hapless Meteorological Office, undaunted by the fiasco over its ‘barbecue summer’ predictions that predated one of the wettest summers on record had been predicting a warmer than usual winter. This leads to my second observation: the reminder that there are two kinds of science: hard and soft.

‘Hard science’ is wonderfully exemplified by this photograph. I am old enough (just) to remember the wonder of the grey grainy smudges of the first photographs laboriously transmitted from space, and now we have full colour high-resolution imagery bounced back to us almost instantaneously. The process by which we get these images: the launching of satellites, their injection into precise orbits, their painstaking navigation and the transmission and reception of digital imagery is a marvel that we take for granted. This is hard (and splendid) science. Yet medium to long-term weather forecasting – not to mention climatic prediction – is science of a much softer and more speculative nature. Clearly, the systems involved are so complex that is virtually impossible to precisely predict what is going to happen. Interestingly enough in geology we have both; the precise analytical and very measurable details of rocks and the speculative modelling of what really did happen 350 million years ago.

Both hard and soft versions are science; but they differ in methodology and the problem is that soft speculative science shelters under the aura of hard science. It’s worth bearing this in mind. I am a scientist and happy to be one. Nevertheless we who are scientists need to carefully distinguish between hard science where the results can be measured to within millimetres, fractions of a degree or milliseconds, and the softer more exploratory science which has more guesswork than we would like to admit. Scientists need to be wary that the unassailable facts of hard science do not lead them into the arrogance of claiming too much for speculative models of soft science. And those of you who are not in any shape or form scientists need to be aware that despite its stunning achievements not all science is quite a solid as its proponents would like us to believe. I suppose you could say that knowledge is a vast sea of uncertainty in which science has created small clusters of firm but growing islands. But a lot may yet be hiding in those unknown seas.

Have a good week and stay warm. Or, if you’re in Alaska, I hope things cool down.

One Response to “Snow, satellites and science”

  1. Daniel says:

    Mr. Walley, if it helps you understand your readership better, I was put on to the Lamb Among the Stars by a good friend. I thoroughly enjoyed the books (and read the Haworth ones, to boot) and checked out your site because I was curious if you actually espoused the post mil position or just used it as a plot device. I still check in because I enjoy your writing and commentary.

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