I’m a Climate Reality Leader, and I’m packing a presentation

Last week, I returned from the Climate Reality Project Leadership Corps training in Denver, Colorado. Suffice to say, I wasn’t astonished to learn the Earth is warming due to the increase in CO2 emissions from human activity. I’ve been aware of the science investigating this phenomenon for most of my adult life and have become increasingly worried by the news that climate change is happening at a much faster rate than previous models predicted, and that its effects were turning out to be even worse than previously thought.

But my concerns about climate change has only been exceeded by my frustration with an unrelenting science denial machine that’s been operating since the 1950’s. Over the years, I’ve won some arguments, but I’ve also lost some friends. I needed a better way to discuss climate change without alienating people. I knew that the Climate Reality Project, led by Vice President Al Gore, offered training, and that I really should apply for training should the opportunity arise.

And then the 2016 election was won by the candidate who insists climate change is a hoax, facts be damned.

Forget winning the argument, it was time to learn how to win the conversation, so off to Denver I went. Here are some takeaways from my trip.

The weather is weird everywhere, even in Denver

Though I’ve flown into Denver International Airport countless times, this was the first time I’ve ever actually been to the city of Denver itself. I was treated to a lovely view of the Rocky Mountains, which was utterly devoid of snow.

The Rocky Mountains, as seen from my hotel room in Denver, March 1st 2017. Note the lack of snow.

It turns out, the greater Denver area has been largely devoid of snow this winter. What’s more, temperatures reached the high 60’s and even low 70’s during the day. This is a problem, considering that early March is supposed to be Colorado’s peak snow season.

We’re gonna win this

Our training room in the Colorado Convention Center. 1001 Climate Reality trainees ready to get after it.

On the first day of training, Vice President Gore delivered his full presentation titled The Climate Crisis and its Solutions. It’s a fitting title, since there are, in fact, real ways to solve the climate crisis. I’ll save the details of the talk for later, but Gore’s overall message was much more hopeful and optimistic than I was expecting.

Vice President Al Gore discussing the climate crisis as a public movement that will ultimately be won.

Gore compared the climate movement to other social movements such as civil rights and marriage equality. Once the argument comes down to a simple  choice between right and wrong, the answer is a foregone conclusion.

Make no mistake, some of the damage caused by catastrophic climate destabilization (my term) will not be undone. And we’re heading for the worst of the irreversible tipping points.  But momentum towards addressing the climate crisis is building, even as time to address the worst of its effects is running out.

The train is leaving the station, but you can still jump on

Coal is getting killed by natural gas, not by regulations. And oil & natural gas are getting crushed by wind and solar. That’s not to say we should be thrilled to see coal miners, frackers, and oil workers out of a job. That would be bad for our economy, bad for society as a whole, and certainly a horrible situation for the families affected.

But it doesn’t have to be doom and gloom for those workers and their families. A recent Harvard Business Review study found that these workers could be retrained for a paltry $180 million to $1.8 billion (depending on best and worst-case scenarios) for related jobs in the solar industry for an average 11% increase in pay. Think about that for a moment. About 150,000 workers could be retrained for better paying clean jobs for less than the cost of a single B-2 bomber. And these jobs won’t increase the rates of black lung disease, which are putting a burden on our expensive health care system.

Story ≫ Science

Although the science of climate change is well-known and long settled, it’s also become increasingly apparent that facts don’t change most people’s minds. Everyone is human and clings to their preferred narrative, especially when that narrative permits people to go about their business and not worry about the consequences.

So presenting the science isn’t enough. There needs to be a personal story to help people understand the problem on a real human scale. That’s why we were given some pro tips on body language and personal storytelling by Ngiste Abebe, co-founder and COO of Aulenor Consulting. There was a lot packed into her presentation and it’s clearly something I’ll need to do some more research on to become a better presenter as well as just better at ordinary conversations.

Al Gore in An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (2017). Credit: Participant Media

We were treated to a sneak peek of the upcoming follow-up to 2005’s An Inconvenient Truth, fittingly titled An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (alas, we weren’t permitted to take pictures). The clip was followed by a discussion with Al Gore, co-director John Shenk, and co-producer Diane Weyermann of Participant Media (the sequel features two directors and two producers for extra awesomeness).

It was a fascinating discussion of what makes a good story and on finding the right blend of science and narrative. Perhaps the biggest revelation was that at the end of the 2005 film, the only call to action available at the time was for people to change their light bulbs. Now there’s a lot more people can do.

The people were awesome, but my mentor was the awesome-est

I was told by more than one staff member that a lot more people came to this training than was expected. Evidently, the election galvanized a lot of people into showing up, and they brought their A-game.

I met people from exotic places such as Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Madagascar, Indonesia, Peru, Italy, New Jersey, and Maryland (in fact, two at my table were fellow Marylanders, one who’s probably a 20-minute drive from my home). Their ages ranged from 6 to 84, and all of them were motivated and eager to learn. Each of our tables was shepherded by a Climate Mentor, a volunteer who’s been active in Climate Reality for a while. While I was impressed by the mentors, there’s not a question in my mind that I had the best.

Me and Rocio Criales Ananos, my mentor at Climate Reality. She’s gangsta.

Rocio Criales Ananos had a successful business in her home town in Peru, but decided that leaving the world a little more habitable for her son and future generations would be a better use of her time on Earth. She became a Climate Reality Leader in 2014 and has been killing it ever since. Not only has she given many, many presentations, she organized her own local 24 Hours of Reality event which included a concert, and was recognized as one of the top Climate Mentors by Al Gore during his opening remarks.

Rocio was amazing. Anything we needed, she was there. As was her 12-year old son, Orion, whom I had the pleasure of meeting. Orion was one of many young people at the training and Rocio has every right in the world to be proud of him.

Rocio is good.
Rocio is kind.
Rocio is gangsta.
Be like Rocio.

Climate Reality Leaders from Pakistán, USA, Colombia, Peru, Indonesia, Belize, and Paraguay. Better known as Table 29. Credit: Rocio Criales Ananos

Next steps: get out there and get after it

None of this would have been possible without the help from my generous GoFundMe contributors. Thanks to you, I have a way to present on the topic and help raise awareness. There’s a lot of work left to do, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to do it.

License to present: my Climate Reality bonna-fides

I have access to the Climate Reality slides and am cleared to give the Climate Crisis and its Solutions presentation to the public. Now I gotta schedule some presentations, write a letter to the Editor, talk to some elected officials, and tell a story.

If you’d like to have a presentation given to your group, either in person or online, I’d be more than happy to help. If I can’t give the presentation, I can certainly help you find a local Climate Reality Leader who can. Drop me a line and let’s talk. We have a lot of work to do and a short time to do it.

Some Thoughts on Cosmos

Image credit: FOX

I realize that there are no shortage of reviews of last night’s premiere of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (including one by my good friend Mike Brotherton), but I did have a few thoughts of my own. First and foremost, I loved this show. It was beautiful and poetic, thoughtful and insightful, and firmly made the case that science is the only way to really understand the world and universe we live in. Will I love it as much as Carl Sagan’s original? Maybe, maybe not, and truthfully, I’m ok with either outcome.

On the shores of the cosmic ocean. Image credit: FOX
On the shores of the cosmic ocean. Image credit: FOX

Although Sagan is no longer with us, having his protege Neil deGrasse Tyson at the helm of the new Ship of the Imagination is a fitting passing of the torch. And what better way to begin the new voyage than with an homage to Sagan. I couldn’t imagine a more fitting kickoff to this series than to literally begin at the same location Carl did 34 years ago.

But in that time a new audience has grown up that is inundated with even more television channels and production values that far surpass anything Hollywood was capable of producing in 1980. Make no mistake, the production values of the original Cosmos were, in my opinion, absolutely incredible. I truly felt like I was flying through the universe with Carl on his ship. Even though there is no way they could possibly do a poor job with this new production, I was wondering if the new series might go overboard with the use of visual effects, or use them in a way that has, quite frankly, been done to death in other science programs. The answer, to be honest, was a bit of a mixed bag for me.

The Spaceship of the Imagination. Image credit: FOX
Takeoff in the Spaceship of the Imagination. Image credit: FOX

Cosmos sets out to orient the viewer in much the same way as it originally started out – by describing our place in both in space and in time. The space bit had Tyson and his ship zipping through the Solar System, which was fine until…

Um...no. Credit: FOX
Um…no. Credit: FOX

To be fair, they didn’t show the Ship zigzaging around the asteroids in hairpin tuns a-la the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back; This shot was much more graceful than that, suggesting perhaps a little bit more space between the asteroids. But the truth is that asteroids are already very, very far apart from one another. I personally would have much preferred a setup where the audience thinks they’re about to play cosmic dodge ball, only to discover that the asteroid belt is wide open with nothing in sight, and Tyson actually having to set course to fly by an asteroid in order to glimpse one up close. That might not have been as visually stunning, so it looks like they went for the cool shot instead, but they also reinforced a very common misconception.

Things get much more interesting – and pretty accurate – when passing through the Jupiter system. The sequence of flying through the Great Red Spot absolutely blew me away.

Near the eye of the storm in Jupiter's Great Red Spot. Credit: FOX
Cloud canyons near the eye of the storm in Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. Credit: FOX

Of course, you can’t do a Saturn flyby without going through the rings. I’ve heard some complaints that they didn’t get the scale right here, but the thickness of Saturn’s rings vary from as thin as 10 meters to as thick as 1 kilometer.

Cosmos' depiction of flying through Saturn's rings. I can live with it. Credit: FOX
Cosmos’ depiction of flying through Saturn’s rings. I can totally live with it. Credit: FOX

All things being equal, this was just too cool a shot to pass up, so I’m good with it.

Next was an all-too brief mention of the ice giants Uranus and Neptune. I know it’s an ambitious first episode show and there’s only so much time to devote to such things but I feel bad for those two worlds. To their credit, they took a moment to describe Trans-Neptunian Objects and the icy worlds of the Kuiper Belt, but once again they overcrowded the scene.

Asteroid belt: Not to scale (or reality) Credit: FOX
The Kuiper Belt: Not to scale (or reality) Credit: FOX

It seems that in this new sequence, we are dodging space rocks a-la the Millennium Falcon, which is unfortunate. In reality, there’s even more space between Kuiper Belt objects than there are between asteroids by virtue of the fact that the Kuiper Belt extends so much farther from the Sun than the asteroid belt. Alas, the cool shot wins out and a misconception is reinforced. Bummer.

We probably wouldn't see this either but whaddyagonnado? Credit: FOX
We probably wouldn’t see this either but whaddyagonnado? Credit: FOX

Interestingly, as Tyson leaves the Solar System, he looks back on the Oort Cloud and notes that the objects there are as far apart from one another as Earth is from Saturn. I guess that’s why he didn’t have to dodge them on the way out. My only observation here, as with any depiction of the Oort Cloud, is that at this imagined distance, the icy comets that populate the cloud are much too small to be seen; The Oort Cloud would be no more noticeable from outside the solar system than it is from our vantage point well within it. And yet there needs to be a way to visually communicate to the viewer that they’re there, so we get a delicate sphere around the Sun.

Jumping forward in the sequence, Tyson continues to define our cosmic address through our diminishing place in the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies. Whenever I see shots like this, I get goosebumps, despite having been familiar with the scale of the observable universe for most of my life. However, I’ll just note that if we really were as far out in between galaxies as depicted in the sequence, we wouldn’t  be able to discern each individual galaxy with our own eyes. Remember, each galaxy in an image like the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field is the result of 2 million seconds of exposure time – nothing our eye would ever be able to register in a glimpse, even if we were looking through the Hubble Space Telescope itself. Still…goosebumps!

It’s when we zoom out to the large scale structure of the observable universe that we finally complete our cosmic address.

The entire observable universe. Yep. Credit: FOX
The entire observable universe isn’t entirely purple. Credit: FOX

I’m not sure why they chose to represent this as purple in color, but my guess is that it was inspired by the Millennium Simulation Project, an ambitious model of the gravitational interaction of a whopping 10 billion galaxies. Here is a small piece of their result:

Image from the Millennium Simulation Project. Credit: Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics
Image from the Millennium Simulation Project. Credit: Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics

To tell the truth, I wish they had used this image instead of the one they created. Not only is it more realistic, but it makes the observable universe seem larger than it appeared in Cosmos.

When describing the history of the universe, we are (re)introduced to the analogy of an earth calendar. I always thought this was the best way to convey the  13.8 billion-year history of the universe, and the comparatively negligible length of time humans have been around to notice it, to a lay audience. Naturally, this has to start with the Big Bang which, unfortunately, cannot really be properly described even with the most sophisticated of visual effects.

Definitely not the biggest. Credit: FOX
Definitely not the biggest. Credit: FOX

Don’t get me wrong, it was a cool sequence. The problem is that you cannot really depict spacetime expanding into itself, which is what really happened (and is continuing to happen). That’s because there is no outside for the universe to expand into. Perhaps the most accurate way to depict a Big Bang is to show nothing on screen, then show “fire” everywhere. There was a 1991 documentary called The Astronomers that depicted the Big Bang exactly this way. But it’s hard to convey the idea of a massive explosion without showing something…well…exploding. Hmm…

Truth be told, I’d be ok with this had Tyson not made the statement that in the beginning the entire universe was compressed down to the size of an atom. If he had instead said it was the observable universe that was so compressed, it would have made all of the difference. Here’s why:

Most cosmologists generally believe that the universe is infinite. By that definition, it extends farther beyond the farthest points in space we can see. These farthest points define the observable universe, and Tyson makes a point of distinguishing the observable universe from the entire universe, which is infinite.

But here’s the catch – if the entire universe is infinite today, then it must have been infinite in the beginning as well.  But how can something be both infinite and compressed down to the size of an atom? It can’t, but the part that defines today’s observable universe can, with all of the points of the infinite universe beyond compressed next to it, and so on. Here’s an illustration from Edward Wright’s excellent cosmology FAQ:

The universe as it was 1 billion years after the Big Bang (left), and 13 billion years later (right). Note that the galaxies (points) do not expand. Image credit: Edward Wright
The universe as it was 1 billion years after the Big Bang (left), and 13 billion years later (right). Note that the galaxies (points) do not expand, but the spacetime in between does, carrying the galaxies away from each other. Image credit: Edward Wright

The green circle represents our observable universe, with the galaxies (dots) much closer together a billion years after the Big Bang than they are today. If we run the clock back further to the beginning, our green observable universe would be infinitesimally small, but the dots (representing the galaxies we will never see) will still go on forever.

Alas, by stating that the entire universe was compressed to the size of an atom, I think Tyson may have reinforced a major misconception.

Again, none of this is to take away from what I thought was an amazing production. And truth be told, we need Cosmos on our screens now more than ever.  Carl Sagan presented Cosmos at a time of both great exploration of our solar system and of grave danger to our home planet and to humanity’s own existence. Sagan understood that our very survival depends on humankind’s knowledge of the cosmos, and of our place in it.

Today, we find ourselves once again in peril – perhaps not from nuclear annihilation but certainly from a rapidly warming planet –  but now amid an ever-increasing wave of science denial. Denial of global warming, modern medicine, biotechnology, and of investments in research. If there was ever a time when we need to present Cosmos to a new generation, it’s now.

You can view the entire episode here. Enjoy the journey.

The New Republic’s Literary Editor Gets Science Wrong

Yesterday I wrote a bit about Steven Pinker’s piece in The New Republic where he defends science from those in the humanities and the academic left. Today there was a video pushback against the article from TNR’s Literary Editor Leon Wieseltier no less. Here’s Wieseltier in his own words:

Ugh, where to begin? First of all, as my friend and astronomer/writer/painter Mike Brotherton points out, the very title of Wieseltier’s piece, No, Science Doesn’t Have All the Answers, demonstrates a lack of understanding of the very subject he criticizes. Science is a process, not a an encyclopedia of answers. By extension, a scientist is not the Shell Answer Man. (1)To be clear.I’m not stating the scientists don’t have any answers. What I am saying is that they don’t have answers “just because.” Instead they gain their knowledge through the process of science.

That may seem nitpicky, but it’s a canard that I’ve heard before and one Wieseltier uses himself, defining “Scientism” as the belief that science has answers to all questions, not just scientific questions. He then goes on to claim this as the reason for the decline in the appreciation of the humanities. He decries that we are becoming a society that looks for wisdom in numbers. In other words, relying on science to reduce everything to the mundane and the non-mysterious.

But aren’t mysteries meant to be solved? For example, when I go out on a clear night and gaze up at the stars, is my knowing that they are really suns hundreds of light years away, shining by thermonuclear fusion in their cores, and are at various stages of their evolution somehow diminish my appreciation of night sky? If anything it enhances it. And knowing that we’re able to actually figure this out only increases my appreciation for the human mind’s ability to comprehend the universe that created it.

In other words, my appreciation of Humanity.

Does Wieseltier and his colleagues actually believe that we would be much better of not knowing this?

I don’t mean to answer Wieseltier’s strawman argument with another strawman, but his video is filled with all kinds of canards which are patently ridiculous. I don’t mean to be harsh, but you’d think that Wieseltier wouldn’t have responded to Pinker by using the very attacks that Pinker so ably nullifies in his piece.

I could go on, but Mike’s post is well worth a read, as is Jerry Coyne’s piece, which takes a charitable, yet critical, view of Wieseltier’s video. I highly recommend checking both of them out.

1 To be clear.I’m not stating the scientists don’t have any answers. What I am saying is that they don’t have answers “just because.” Instead they gain their knowledge through the process of science.

Science is Not Your Enemy: The Most Impassioned Defense of Science I’ve Ever Read

Cover image from Steven Pinker's article
Cover image from Steven Pinker’s article. Seriously, go read it. Image credit: The New Republic

When I was a wee undergraduate astronomy student, my favorite activity was serving as a Teaching Assistant to the core astronomy lab. For some reason, I enjoy helping others to learn about the universe or something. Anyway, one year the chair of the Honors program at Villanova asked the Astronomy department to create a special class for their Honors students – presumably, the core astronomy course wasn’t challenging enough for their students. We agreed and I was set to TA the lab. We found it to be a rather challenging experience, not because they were testing the limits of our knowledge, but because we were very rapidly testing the limits of the students’ tolerance of ideas outside of their area of study.

One example was a student who was incensed at the idea that we know the age of the universe and that it is expanding. Evidently, this knowledge was in conflict with his understanding of the universe as taught to him by Aristotle, Kant, and others. In other words, he accepted the tenants of philosophy as fact and rejected everything he learned in our class that conflicted with it.

Of course, that’s just one example, but I could certainly give others. And my tales are hardly unique – there has been some pushback from against science from the Humanities for quite some time now, so this is nothing new. In fact, scientists (myself included, in the most generous use of that term) have been long been accused of amoral reductionist thinking that ignores the “magic” of the world. There’s even a term for this view of the world, Scientism (1)As if using science to understand the world were a bad thing.

But today I read piece by Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, that is the best defense of science I’ve ever seen. There are  hundreds of gems to mine from the article, but I’ll whet your appetite with this:

The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet.

1 As if using science to understand the world were a bad thing

Stop Calling Them “False Color” Images!

Last week we discussed astronomical imaging and even had our workshop attendees have a go at processing images. Such an exercise is instructive because it crystalizes the idea that colors in astronomical images are neither real nor false. Instead, they’re representative of the filters, structure, and anything else astronomers are trying to pull out of the image data.

Afterward we had a discussion about what the term “false color” really means and that perhaps the term “false” isn’t a very good term to use to describe enhanced images. The discussion turned out to be rather timely because astronomer and imaging scientist Robert Hurt just put a blog post up today where he criticizes the use of the term “false color”. In it, he suggests that the term was invented in a much more mature time when the public had a favorable view of and trust in scientists. Since then, he conjectures, public support and trust of science has fallen flat and the term “false” now implies something intended to be misleading and deceitful. I’m curious if there is any hard polling data that supports or refutes this claim, but I do not disagree with the concern here.

Before I show you what I mean, let’s consider the fact that our eyes only see a tiny sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum

We can only see a teeny tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum, so how are we supposed to represent the colors we cannot see in an image we're supposed to look at?
We can only see a teeny tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum, so how are we supposed to represent the colors we cannot see in an image we’re supposed to look at?

As you can see, all of the colors you and I will ever be able to perceive, from the deepest violet to the reddest red imaginable, occupy just a teeny, tiny sliver of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. There are all sorts of colors we’ll never be able to see with our eyes, but we can still detect them with modern-day instruments. These instruments were first showed off to the public during the Voyager missions to the outer planets in the late 1970’s and 1980s. Consider this lovely image of Saturn:

Three Voyager 2 images, taken through ultraviolet, violet and green filters, were combined to make this photograph. And no, it isn’t false, it’s just translated into something we can see. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Pretty isn’t it? Obviously, that’s not how Saturn would appear to our unaided eye if we were flying by along with Voyager, but Voyager captured it in ultraviolet, violet, and green filters. Good for Voyager, but our eyes are simply not capable of pulling off such a stunt. So how can we visualize what Voyager recorded? The answer is to substitute a color we can see for a color we cannot see (in this case, perhaps swapping red in for ultraviolet). This technique doesn’t hide the ultraviolet; quite the opposite – it shows us where the ultraviolet light is coming from!

So let’s describe such images as being rendered in representative color or translated color instead of false color because those colors aren’t being used to falsify anything.

And when we do capture objects in the same colors we do see, perhaps we could refer to those images as being rendered invisible color:

Hubble Space Telescope image of Saturn, processed to appear very similar to how it would look to our eyes. Image credit: NASA/ESA

Even the press release refers to this as Saturn in Natural Colors. Natural to to you and me, perhaps, but what about a Mantis Shrimp? It can see in color bands far beyond the visible and I’m pretty sure he’d be feeling pretty shortchanged if all he saw of Saturn was this washed out-image. Perhaps a better term for this would be Saturn in visible colors instead of in natural colors. Because let’s face it, ultraviolet and infrared happen in nature, too.

All of this is to say that the colors in astronomical images are real, but they may just be being used to represent a color we cannot see with our eyes that nonetheless reveals something truly amazing about the subject in question.

Bottom line, there are no “false color” images and there are no “true color” images. There are only images that convey the wonders of the cosmos to our woefully limited eyes, so let’s drop those false terms once and for all, shall we?