"It is the unhappy fate of the scientist today that he must play the role of Cassandra in the body politic, sending his fellow men to bed with nightmares in the hope to be heard in time."

- Arthur von Hippel, in "The Molecular Designing of Materials" (h/t @upbeatprof)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Knocking on Your Golden Door

OK, so here I am in Pasadena for the SciPy meeting. The other time I managed to attend, I stayed at a marginal motel at the edge of town, probably not entirely safe. Now I am staying at one of those places where they practically charge you for even breathing. ($7 to park, $9/day for internet, $5.50 for a bowl of oatmeal, which somehow the plumpness of the raisins fails to justify...) I'm not sure which I dislike more. Readers who are fussy about their tax dollars will be relieved to know that it's private grant money (and not climate) that's funding this trip. But the presentations are wonderful.

Anyway, the scientific Python community continues to make amazing advances, and pretty soon there won't be a need for a conventional language in high performance codes at all. So when do I get around to pulling the Torvalds maneuver. "I am writing a climate model as an intellectual exercise, I invite participation." The trouble is I'm not energetic/nerdy enough to work on what other scientists tell me to do all day and on what I want all evening. The soul rebels. The clarinet gets rusty, the cookware gets dusty, the main rationale for living in Austin (honky tonks!) goes unattended. The long shot grant form NSF to pay me to do what I want is still pending but in retrospect I'm not sure I made the case all that convincingly.

Google is funding some of the work I saw presented today, but I can't blame them for not funding mine, on account of it's complete vapor so far. I almost have to make a living as a writer, if only so I can get some actual science done in my spare time! So keep them clicks coming in!

Anyway, a couple of articles on climate models showed up this week. Here's an official summary of climate modeling from the DOE's CCPP, lead author Dave "Darth" Bader, and here's Oak Ridge senior scientist John Drake's argument. I've met both, and they are very smart and decent fellows. That said they can both be relied upon to give a DOE-friendly report. (It's also reassuring to see Isaac Held on the author list of the CCPP report. I am confident that the report will not be stretching the truth too far on that account.) What do you think?

I think that past achievements are remarkable but I have my doubts about the current direction. Is there room for another approach? Does another useful approach exist? Well, I actually think so, but I'm damned if I can figure out how to get anyone who can afford to give it a try to do that, with me in the loop or otherwise. Maybe I'm just a little cracked. It's been known to happen, but I still think I have a shot at doing something important left in me. There are worse fates than just chugging away doing applications coding, I suppose, and having an interesting intellectual life in some disembodied community meanwhile.

That all said, those of you who criticize climate models without much basis in experience would do well to read the Drake article and the Bader report.

Meanwhile, is there any In It reader in LA who'd care to join me over beer this Friday evening? Let me know. Perhaps you can pry my trade secrets out of me.


bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

Michael Tobis:

"I'm damned if I can figure out how to get anyone who can afford to give it a try to do that, with me in the loop or otherwise."

Well, if it doesn't involve supercomputers or processing clusters or several days of computations, then maybe I can give a try to whatever it is you have in mind...

Michael Tobis said...

Alas, it involves all of those things or I'd have long since done it.

thingsbreak said...


Have you tried approaching JASON?

Aaron said...

Maybe, climate modeling should do some "value engineering" to see what scope is really cost effective? It could be that there is only one number that we need, but we need to get that number correct. The number that we really need is: "How long until melt in Greenland and WAIS results in water up to our chins?"

That is a number that can be ballparked with Excel on a laptop in a few hours.

However, nobody likes the answer, so they (i.e., US DOE) say, "Lets spend $50 million over years and years and get a better answer." The result will be a more precise answer that they can only read if they hold the monitor over heads so it does not short out in the hip deep water.

The correct answer to "How long until melt in Greenland and WAIS results in water up to our chins?" is "30 years!" Do not like my answer? Read this about walrus and reconsider: (http://en.rian.ru/russia/20080818/116103830.html That is 1,000 found last year and 800 this year for a total of 1,800.)

Michael Tobis said...

Aaron, if you have that spreadsheet, please send it along. I know of some huge efforts spinning up about the prognosis for the ice sheets. I don't think the answer is known. I suspect your spreadsheet, if it exists, simply restates your assumptions.

However, if you are saying that climate models are not needed to get a first order answer to the mitigation question, I agree.

There remains hope that they will be useful in planning adaptation.

Both ice sheet models and climate models are intrinsically scientifically interesting. I think they deserve at least as much support as any other scientific endeavor with less impact. For various reasons even aside from the practical matters, this is very timely science.

ac said...

"So when do I get around to pulling the Torvalds maneuver. "I am writing a climate model as an intellectual exercise, I invite participation."?"

You could do worse than diving in head first, ready or not. Presuming your intended development model is open-source/ open access there's no reason to sit on what might be great ideas.

Mark said...

That John Drake article is a little old isn't it?

"By using the increased computing power of the Intel Paragon, the IBM SP2, or the Cray Research T3D, researchers should advance..."

"...many researchers are working to improve the models by coupling the ocean and atmosphere."

These put it in the early-mid 1990s.

thingsbreak said...

Speaking of JASON...