Friday, December 21, 2018

Winter Solstice

[Photo: Herrmann Stamm]

The clock says 3:30 am. Is that early or late? Wrapped in a blanket I go into the living room. I open the door and step onto the patio. It’s too warm for December. An almost full moon blurs into the clouds. In the distance, the highway hums.

Somewhere, someone dies.

For everyone who dies, two people are born. 7.5 billion and counting.

We came to dominate planet Earth because, compared to other animals, we learned fast and collaborated well. We used resources efficiently. We developed tools to use more resources, and then employed those tools to use even more resources. But no longer. It’s 2018, and we are failing.

That’s what I think every day when I read the news. We are failing.

Throughout history, humans improved how to exchange and act on information held by only a few. Speech, writing, politics, economics, social and cultural norms, TV, telephones, the internet. These are all methods of communication. It’s what enabled us to collectively learn and make continuous progress. But now that we have networks connecting billions of people, we have reached our limits.

Fake news, Russian trolls, shame storms. Some dude’s dick in the wrong place. That’s what we talk about.

And buried below the viral videos and memes there’s the information that was not where it was supposed to be. Hurricane Katrina? The problem was known. The 2008 financial crisis? The problem was known. That Icelandic volcano whose ashes, in 2010, grounded flight traffic? Utterly unsurprising. Iceland has active volcanoes. Sometimes the wind blows South-East. Btw, it will happen again. And California is due for a tsunami. The problems are known.

But that’s not how it will end.

20 years ago I had a car accident. I was on a busy freeway. It was raining heavily and the driver in front of me suddenly braked. Only later did I learn someone had cut his way. I hit the brakes. And then I watched a pair of red lights coming closer.

They say time slows if you fear for your life. It does.

I came to a stop one inch before slamming into the other car. I breathed out. Then a heavy BMW slammed into my back.

Human civilization will go like that. If we don’t keep moving, problems now behind us will slam into our back. Climate change, environmental pollution, antibiotic resistance, the persistent risk of nuclear war, for just to mention a few – you know the list. We will have to deal with those sooner or later. Not now. Oh, no. Not us, not now, not here. But our children. Or their children. If we stop learning, if we stop improving our technologies, it’ll catch up with them, sooner or later.

Having to deal with long-postponed problems will eat up resources. Those resources, then, will not be available for further technological development, which will create further problems, which will eat up more resources. Modern technologies will become increasingly expensive until most people no longer can afford them. Infrastructures will crumble. Education will decay. It’s a downward spiral. A long, unpreventable and disease-ridden, regress.

Those artificial intelligences you were banking on? Not going to happen. All the money in the world will not lead to scientific breakthroughs if we don’t have sufficiently many people with the sufficient education.

Who is to blame? No one, really. We are just too stupid to organize our living together on a global scale. We will not make it to the next level of evolutionary development. We don’t have the mental faculties. We do not comprehend. We do not act because we cannot. We don’t know how. We will fail and, maybe, in a million years or so, another species will try again.

Climate negotiations stalled over the choice of a word. A single word.

The clouds have drifted and the bushes now throw faint shadows in the moonlight. A cat screeches, or maybe it’s two. Something topples over. An engine starts. Then, silence again.

In the silence, I can hear them scream. All the people who don’t get heard, who pray and hope and wait for someone to please do something. But there is no one to listen. Even the scientists, even people in my own community, do not see, do not want to see, are not willing to look at their failure to make informed decisions in large groups. The problems are known.

Back there on that freeway, the BMW totaled my little Ford. I carried away neck and teeth damage, though I wouldn’t realize this until months later. I got out of my car and stood in the rain, thinking I’d be late for class. Again. The passenger’s door of the BMW opened and out came – an umbrella. Then, a tall man in a dark suit. He looked at me and the miserable state of my car and handed me a business card. “Don’t worry,” he said, “My insurance will cover that.” It did.

Of course I’m as stupid as everyone else, screaming screams that no one hears and, despite all odds, still hoping that someone has an insurance, that someone knows what to do.

I go back into the house. It’s dark inside. I step onto a LEGO, one of the pink ones. They have fewer sharp edges; maybe, I think, that’s why parents keep buying them.

The kids are sleeping. It will be some hours until the husband announces his impending awakening with a morning fart. By standby lights I navigate to my desk.

We are failing. I am failing. But what else can I do than try.

I open my laptop.


  1. Sabine,
    You're really in a bad mood.
    Humanity is NOT failing. By any measure, things are getting better. It's not always rosy, and when it is, it's not the case for all humans. It has never been rosy for every one, and it will never be.
    If you think we're polluting the planet, then have a look at how it was some 100 years ago, or 300 years ago. Climate change will NOT kill us all, and by the way climate always changes, to the better or worse. We're NOT running out of resources. Throughout human history, some resources got overused, and were replaced. Like Julian Simon used to say: the only scarce resource is human intelligence. From following your blog, you've got the intelligence Julian talked about, so please do not waste this fabulous and much needed resource.

    Best wishes for the end of the year, and the coming ones.

  2. Hi Sabine,

    You have the courage of your convictions which is rare. Humanity *may* be improving but most individuals are still irrational and not endowed with reason.

    Hell is other people!

  3. As The Joker would say: Why so serious?

    I don't etimate, our species is failing, although many interested parties and stakeholders try to suggest and connote this to the public with - helas! - actually some result. :-(

    But I still have harboured that spirit of the 60's and 70's: 'everything goes!' and I strictly decline to fall in such zeitgeist agony and despair - be it concerning my private existence or the future of humankind.

    So try to think more positive, don't worry to much about this and that: enjoy your life as a loving mother of two and an independently thinking physicist with so many followers!

    I wish you a very happy christmas and a fine new year full of experiences, success and recognition!

  4. Codicil: And remember "per ASPERA ad astra"

  5. "We will fail and, maybe, in a million years or so, another species will try again." And they will curse us, for having despoiled the planet of its abundant resources.

  6. Codicil #2: " boldly go where no one has gone before!" - Intro from Star Trek (TOS)


  7. The problem is that all the thrust has been on CO2, and global warming. Which is probably not a big deal. The big deal is the pollution. We want to get rid of the fuel burning to get rid of the pollution, which is mostly CO2, but a very significant part is poisonous gasses, even though its not a large percentage.

    But how do you solve the problem. Just saying that you should not will not work. It will only work when there is a solution. And the solution is electricity. Most of the western world has moved towards electricity for cooking and transportation in the form of trains, but the rest of the world is still not there.

    There has to be a way to move towards electricity, and producing the electricity in power plants where even though the fuel is used it is much more efficient and has better support for containing the resultant pollution. Ideal would be to move towards solar panels. Solar panels are best as they allow distributed production. But the production is over the day, but we need power around the clock. This means it requires batteries, batteries that are recyclable. And we need a huge number of them.

    The thrust of climate advocates needs to be towards the development of cheaper, denser, and recyclable batteries, not Carbon tax. And development of systems that can use electricity rather than fuel. Like what Tesla is doing with its cars. When we will look back in the future, we will realize that Elon Musk had done more for Climate, than all the climate advocates put together. Maybe sometime in the future we will have a power dense battery which could allow long distance flights.

    Unfortunately, the Climate advocates are not thinking long ahead. They are just thinking about how to create new legislation. We know from history Legislating things doesn't work, it only pushes us towards autocratic govts. Lets not vote for Autocracy, while thinking to vote for Climate.

    Merry Christmas and happy new year.

  8. The global fertility rate is falling rapidly; if we can survive the peak population, things may get better.

    Climate change and environmental degradation require all of us to do our best and more.

    The only way to defeat the unreasonable is to outnumber them. However, that doesn't mean a war of extermination. The fact is that the scientifically inclined outnumber the rest; but we do not unite around these issues.

  9. It's the bleakest time of year, Sabine. (And rarely more so than in the UK right now...) I share your frustration and perhaps despair. But there is a lot of humanity and compassion in the world, and that's what we need to keep sight of, if we can. No easy or obvious solutions, and certainly no simple technofixes. But still, some reasons for hope. Take care, look for the comfort of friends, and let's hope 2019 begins some positive change.

  10. The keys are to avoid nuclear war and incorporate sustainability into our egos.

    We can only do our individual part based on the strengths we have. Michael Phelps was made by nature to swim and he did. Usain Bolt was made by nature to sprint and he did. You were made by nature to help solve the unknown and you are - one bit at a time.

  11. words by Eric Idle:

    Some things in life are bad
    They can really make you mad
    Other things just make you swear and curse.
    When you're chewing on life's gristle
    Don't grumble, give a whistle
    And this'll help things turn out for the best...

    And...always look on the bright side of life...
    Always look on the light side of life...

    If life seems jolly rotten
    There's something you've forgotten
    And that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing.
    When you're feeling in the dumps
    Don't be silly chumps
    Just purse your lips and whistle - that's the thing.

    And...always look on the bright side of life...
    Always look on the light side of life...

    For life is quite absurd
    And death's the final word
    You must always face the curtain with a bow.
    Forget about your sin - give the audience a grin
    Enjoy it - it's your last chance anyhow.

    So always look on the bright side of death
    Just before you draw your terminal breath

    Life's a piece of shit
    When you look at it
    Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true.
    You'll see it's all a show
    Keep 'em laughing as you go
    Just remember that the last laugh is on you.

    And always look on the bright side of life...
    Always look on the right side of life...
    (Come on guys, cheer up!)
    Always look on the bright side of life...
    Always look on the bright side of life...
    (Worse things happen at sea, you know.)
    Always look on the bright side of life...
    (I mean - what have you got to lose?)
    (You know, you come from nothing - you're going back to nothing.
    What have you lost? Nothing!)
    Always look on the right side of life...

  12. I rather think the elephant in the room is overpopulation. And that one day you're going to be faced with a choice: save the planet, or save the children.

  13. To all of you feeling blue - thank you for continuing to fight the good fight. As stated earlier in the comments - "through hardship to the stars". My advice - enjoy a day off walking or skiing or skating or having a snowball fight. Then in the evening - after the kids are in bed - enjiea nice double whiskey or other beverage of your choice. I bet you sleep better and can rejoin the fight with more energy the next day. Best wishes to all - Happy Solstice everybody

  14. There are two established faithes which stabilize the run to the abyss:

    - the nowaday and future science and engineering could fix all current and future problems

    (thats why we hear so much about "Digitalisierung" (German), "KI" (German) (artificial intelligence), autonomous driving, electromobility, ...)

    - the mankind would be on the only way to prosperity and welfare (and capitalism and technicity would be the only and rigth way; development of philisophy, sociology and psychology would be only important in there usefulness for steering societies)

    And there is a third tremendously catastrophical faith:

    - the western world would be the only right world, the whole world would have to be transformed only after our concept. And if necessary with deceit, force, war, murder and manslaughter.

    That's where we are being today: at the eve of a yet comfortable hell. And nobody is ready to give up just only one tiniest particle of comfortability to give a change a chance.

  15. Snap out of it. You've got work to do.

  16. I'm just here to say thank you for your great blog and book.
    Keep it up!
    Happy Holidays!

  17. -> Unknown (1)
    Things have become better for some time, but not enough to balance increasing problems recently.
    Pollution has been worse locally 100 ... 300 years ago, but not that globally widespread as today. The areas unimpaired by pollution or deterioration of the ecology are receding fast.
    And there is the pollution of the global atmosphere, most important with CO2 changing climate. Whether climate change kills only some (as occuring already now) many, most or us all depends on how (far) it proceeds.
    Climate indeed always changes, but apart from some catastrophes (!) not with the pace we are triggering it currently. Extreme climate changes did also occur in the past - most pronounced from Perm to Trias 252 million years ago. It killed most of the species existing before that - that, too, could occur again. But that's no reason to consciously cause or passively accept such an event.
    May be such thoughts provoked Sabines dark article.
    Replacement of resources is only possible to a certain degree.
    Anyway I'm still, though increasingly strained, optimistic, that progress is possible and problems will be solved. This definitely needs a lot of intelligence, which is much scarcer than ignorance, cynism, egoism.

  18. Sabine, I agree!

    We (humans) will take only micro-measures on climate change, because doing anything more than symbolic will cost us truck loads of money and reduce our conveniences, make winter heat more expensive, make air-conditioning more expensive, make product wrappings and containers more expensive, make our transportation more expensive, and perhaps slower, and perhaps restricted.

    We will not do what it takes to address the epidemic of autism, nor recognize the clear and multiple links to heavy-metal pollution, because our politicians are beholden to industries, and the jobs they create, and their citizens want to keep the prices of their products down.

    We will not do whatever it takes to minimize corruption in government (or most charities for that matter), because the corrupt are not going to give up their power or privilege or money.

    Humanity is not going to solve any of its looming systemic problems, because the vast majority of us are too short-sighted to address any pain that is not immediate and causing us personal pain. Heck, the vast majority of us are not even afraid of death enough to sacrifice what it takes to remain healthy past 50. (I say that knowing I am amongst the guilty.)

    If the world is saved from any of this, it will be due to a handful of scientists inventing a technical solution. If Global Warming is solved, the solution will be found by a group of scientists that figure out how to produce green energy cheaper than fossil fuels can ever be, and distributes the knowledge of how to do that inexpensively enough to make green energy the only economic choice going forward. Or scientists that figure out how to extract megatons of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere without

    it will not be a grand coalition of billions of citizens, there will be no turning point in which the world awakens. We are like children living in a comfortable house, we don't think about where the food, heat, cooling, transportation or education or power comes from, we don't think about where the security comes from, or where the healthcare and pharmaceuticals come from, or how the bills get paid, or even about how many bills there are.

    And that is how it will stay. The parents in this metaphor are the scientists, that may or may not figure out how to pay the bills for this lifestyle, and if they do figure it out the children will remain oblivious.

    I don't think the chances are good. Too much of the leadership of our countries and global corporations are very short-sighted and seek immediate returns regardless of the long term consequences. We can't change 8 billion minds. When their minds are forced to change by the pain of consequences, it will be too late. On all these fronts, I wait to see if a handful of scientists somewhere pulls a rabbit out of their hat. Given the state of physics alone, my hopes aren't high.

  19. I think Mary is right, Sabien.
    Snap out of it.
    And treat yourself better.
    Especially in avoiding info overload and getting the sleep you need.
    As well : please remember you're not responsible for all of human history, past or present.
    You're 1 unit of 7.5 billion and counting.
    Just sayin' ...

  20. Dear B- Thank you for another year of honesty, humor, truth, insight, poetry, and videos. Unfortunately our humanity and ability to feel joy comes with a price tag of also feeling pain and sometimes despair. Each year at this time of the Winter Solstice my brother and I go to a greasy spoon restaurant of our youth and have a BBQ beef sandwich and soda pop. We talk about life and go home knowing that tomorrow the Sun will shine a little longer and maybe even brighter. Again we struggled but were not defeated by the darkness. He is 80 and me 77.

    Smiles to you,

    Pat Pierce

  21. The 21st century elevates the unable, 85% of a civilized (sewage treatment plants) population. Ignore tides floating all ships. Crush the able, cherish fools.

    "California is due for a tsunami" Shattered by serial earthquakes, drowned when Cascadia flips the ocean’s floor, smothered in career idiots, multi-$trillion bankruptcy, pillaged and burned for minority rights. The tested 83-85 IQ, 700,000 "student" LA school system is its forever future.

    Nowhere else to go, no how to leave. Physics should challenge QM through Hunds' paradox, and all gravitation through baryogenesis - fast, cheap, definitive panic starts.

  22. Dear B- Thank you for another year of honesty, humor, truth, insight, poetry, and videos. Unfortunately our humanity and ability to feel joy comes with a price tag of also feeling pain and sometimes despair. Each year at this time of the Winter Solstice my brother and I go to a greasy spoon restaurant of our youth and have a BBQ beef sandwich and soda pop. We talk about life and go home knowing that tomorrow the Sun will shine a little longer and maybe even brighter. Again we struggled but were not defeated by the darkness. He is 80 and me 77.

    Smiles to you,

    Pat Pierce

  23. Unlike many of those offering hope, I think you're absolutely right. Over the last few years I've come to realize the human race is almost certainly a fail, that we will never escape this rock in any significant way, let alone escape this solar system.

    As an "intelligent" species, we're obviously not intelligent enough.

    Here's what I've always considered an almost canonical example of the problem. It's also shows when the problem became very apparent to those of us paying attention...

    In 1998 two similar movies came out: Deep Impact, directed by Mimi Leder, and Armageddon, directed by the infamous Michael Bay. It was her second film, his third, so early days for both.

    Armageddon and Bay went on to become famous with Bay becoming a huge money-earner. Few really remember Deep Impact (or Mimi Leder), which was a much better film (and a much better film maker).

    The public made very clear the sort of entertainment they prefer: Bay's mindless action, hands down.

    So long as our culture sees comicbook movies, video games, and general mindlessness as primary entertainment, the species will be forever mired in its own infancy.

    We can't even solve simple social problems involving peoples' paint jobs, and we're really screwed up in the head when it comes to peoples' plumbing. And not only do I not see us getting better, but in the last decade or so, I'm convinced we're backsliding to the dark ages.

    So, yeah, Sabine... I share your feelings 100%!

  24. "Humanity is NOT failing. By any measure, things are getting better. It's not always rosy, and when it is, it's not the case for all humans. It has never been rosy for every one, and it will never be."

    In some respects you are right, as Steven Pinker has pointed out.

    "If you think we're polluting the planet, then have a look at how it was some 100 years ago, or 300 years ago."

    Here you are wrong. While some things have improved (e.g. exposure to dangerous chemical at work, quality of drinking water), some things have worsened. In particular, there is too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This isn't "pollution" per se but, perhaps because of that, it is not taken seriously enough by enough people.

    "Climate change will NOT kill us all, and by the way climate always changes, to the better or worse. We're NOT running out of resources. Throughout human history, some resources got overused, and were replaced. Like Julian Simon used to say: the only scarce resource is human intelligence."

    Wishful thinking will not help us. Yes, the climate has always been changing, but not on such short timescales. Yes, the Earth will survive, life will survive, but our civilization might not.

    As H.G. Wells said, civilization is a race between education and catastrophe. :-|

  25. Sabine,

    Three theories on the future:

    Limits to growth, the population bomb, Climate change.
    Graph looks like a Dirac impulse when zoomed out
    no tech low pop then lots of tech high pop then total sterilization of earths surface
    See Fermi paradox, the great filter, ect.

    Conclusion: we all die no need to think about it or try to act to avoid it as there is nothing you can do (sterilization of earths surface required for this outcome otherwise the mole people repopulate and use thorium reactors to play civ round II, humans are a terrifyingly resilient species, yada yada... WE CANNOT ALLOW A MINE-SHAFT GAP!!!)

    Singularity, lots of room at the bottom, Engines of creation
    Graph looks like any exponential
    no tech low pop then infinite tech and infinite pop forever
    See Age of EM, AiXi, any sci-fi with FTL (a few without it, Lockstep anyone)

    Conclusion: no need to think about it the robots will ether eat you or build paradise on earth for everyone (and dogos too!), it will be fun to watch I hope I live to see this outcome.

    Step change, Hack stability, system saturation
    Graph looks like a logistics curve or step change when zoomed out
    no tech low pop then a transition period then a steady high pop and high tech
    see... idk I'm out on a limb here, I think ribbon farm talks about it sometimes

    Conclusion: outcome varies greatly depending on where we hit the wall of diminishing returns, if the limit to civ is the edge of earths gravity well that is a totally different outcome then if the limit is colonization of all solar orbiting bodies in our system or all systems in the galaxy (H Beam pipers pera-time would also affect this set of outcomes but i digress)

    Personally I believe in a future from set three as the logistics curve keeps showing up in different industries and we seem to have run out of errors in physics. A future model that doesn't leave a roll for humans is not very motivating. Seriously do the greens really thing that telling all the kidos that we are doomed and deserve to die for sins perpetrated by other people before we were born is a recipe for a burning will to fix things? Or even get out of bed in the morning? It really seems like a misunderstanding of the heard nature of people. That old putting posters up showing piles of litter causes people to litter more, because we learn from example not from shame. But to each their own... or w/e

  26. "We will not do what it takes to address the epidemic of autism, nor recognize the clear and multiple links to heavy-metal pollution, because our politicians are beholden to industries, and the jobs they create, and their citizens want to keep the prices of their products down"

    Cut the bullshit. Pseudo-science makes things worse. Yes, there are problems with industry and capitalism in general, but by dragging the "autism epidemic" into it, you demonstrate your lack of connection to reality. Yes, heavy-metal pollution is bad, but there is no evidence that it causes autism. (There is also no evidence that the frequency of autism is increased. More people are diagnosed with it because the definition is now broader (including Asperger syndrome, for instance) and more people are in a position to seek help.) By the way, two of my children have autism, so I'm sure that I know more about it than most commentators, and certainly more than all conspiracy theorists put together.

  27. "It will be some hours until the husband announces his impending awakening with a morning fart."

    Just when I thought that you were about to convince me that we should all be as sad as you, the lack of morning farts in my marriage bed reminded me how lucky I am. :-D

  28. Whatever one thinks of the mathematics and logic of the doomsday argument, I've always wondered when people think that it must be wrong because they believe that it is obvious that we are not living in the end times. As Sabine notes, there is much to be afraid of, and a few crazy people could end our civilization. What has changed is that, until relatively recently in human history, catastrophes were local; folks elsewhere could survive. No longer.

  29. Depressing but accurate Sabine! You know what happens when you put a frog in a pot of cold water and then slowly warm it? We, humanity, are that frog!

  30. Sabine,

    I also take the lack of education in the general population as a good sign. It means that us in the technical fields are performing so flawlessly that fewer and fewer of us are needed to keep the wheels turning. It's a sign of success. We're winning. -ish

    Side note: the great unwashed masses make great entertainment, ever hear of the Chlamydia outbreak at a Texas hi-school that had an abstinence only sex ed program, You go Texas keep being awesome!

  31. It's just the human nature. Humans have a rational part, but also an irrational one, full of egotistical impulses and which only strive for their instant satisfaction. We like to think that we are fully rational and that we can easily control that Mr.Hyde part of our Dr.Jekyll, but we really can't, since that part is deeply ingrained in our brains by evolutionary mechanisms that helped us survive as individuals. You probably already know all this. But here it comes the twist. Thus, the natural state of the world is not order, happiness and rationality, but chaos, misery and despair. Pain is the positive feeling, happiness just the mere transitory absence of it. When you see the world through that lens, it's not 'chaos', it's a beautiful harmony of horror, it everything makes sense. If anything, we are destinated to utter failure by our own very nature. There's a very unlikely chance that we may succeed, and we should make our best for that, but if it doesn't happen, it's not really worth the trouble to cry for that, it would be like crying to a stone for being a stone. I'm not saying that it's morally justifiable or that we shouldn't try to improve it, I'm just saying that that's the actual nature of things and that if we think we can put reason as the central element, we will be led to think that everything is wrong with the world and with people, but that's a delusion and it's actually the other way around, reason is the intruder here, that's why it's so incredibly hard to make advances in that direction.

  32. @Philip Helbig No need to get abusive; there are multiple independent experiments that show a strong link between heavy metals and autism. For one, at least in the USA, the rate of autism in industrial areas with the highest atmospheric levels of heavy metals is several times the rate of autism in the areas with the lowest atmospheric levels of heavy metals. I'm a statistician that has read the statistics.

    A second line of inquiry is studying the biological elimination of heavy metals in autistic children. We have done this by comparing the amount of heavy metals in their hair, as compared to that found in others they live and eat with daily; such as their mother, father, and non-autistic siblings. In the same environment, we'd expect these levels to be statistically comparable. They are not, many autistic children (far more than chance) have considerably lower levels of heavy metal in their hair. Since they presumably suffer the same load of heavy metal ingestion/absorption as their house mates, this doesn't make sense unless the autistic child is failing to eliminate all the heavy metals.

    Normally that elimination is accomplished by a "chelating" molecule in the bloodstream, that latch onto a heavy metal atom on one side; the other side of the molecule contains flags that cause it to be transported to a "garbage dump" to be expelled: Urine, Feces, hair growth, ear wax, tear or sweat ducts, fingernails, etc.

    Of course, I consider it a huge mistake (along with several medical doctors) to classify children on the "autism spectrum", without proof they are suffering from the same disease. It is like classifying people on a "lung disease spectrum" that includes influenza, cystic fibrosis, tuberculosis, emphysema and lung cancer. So I don't expect ALL autistics to show a retention of heavy metals; but it is clear many do.

    Also it is clear to me, statistically speaking, that the rise in the diagnosis of autism is not just a cultural phenomenon of greater reporting, and is not just a genetic disease. Only environmental factors can cause this kind of growth. Or if it is a genetic disorder, then environmental factors are driving it.

    I doubt you have evidence that heavy metals have nothing to do with autism. Describe them if you do.

  33. Dear Sabine,

    I see a similar tenor in some mainstream media. See, for instance:

    However, I am also optimistic enough to completely agree with your penultimate sentence. After we look at the challenges at hand, realistically assess them and avoid lulling ourselves with false hopes and wishful thinking, what else, indeed, can we do other than try?

    The next year, like any year before, will bring a mix of good news and bad news. We each can do our part to help the former along and impede the latter.

    No matter how evident the triumph of human stupidity seems to us (and it sure seems very evident these days), it will only be a real and lasting triumph if we, i.e. those of us committed not only to the betterment of the human condition but also to a notion of truth at which we arrived after utmost dispassionate deliberation and to which we bind ourselves regardless of personal cost, give up.

    So, my recommendation is exactly the same as yours: keep trying!

    Not all of us may succeed and we may not be successful in everything, but the alternative is that any chance at bouncing back, as we have numerous times in human history, forever forecloses.

    So, I am glad that your beautifully written essay ends not only on a hopeful note, but implies a call for action. Let us heed it.

  34. "I doubt you have evidence that heavy metals have nothing to do with autism. Describe them if you do."

    There is a very good reason why defendants do not have to prove their innocence; rather, the accuser has to prove their guilt. It's the same in science; as a matter of principle, one cannot prove a negative. The burden of proof is on the person making the claim. Do you have a reference to a serious medical journal which backs up your claim? (Of course, one has to prove causation, not just correlation. Global warming is not caused by a reduction in the number of pirates.)

  35. Sabine wrote: We are just too stupid to organize our living together on a global scale.

    Maybe. I currently put the odds at 50/50. Is that optimistic or pessimistic? We'll know for sure if we're too stupid to succeed within the next 200 years.

    We worry about the End of Science or Physics. If anyone so much as mentions the *possibility* of the End of Humans, people say it's alarmist, it's a hoax, it's a left-wing, anti-business agenda, or it's foolish to act until the science is certain. Examples from this blog:

    In response to a comment about particle physicists who make worthless predictions, Unknown said, "It's exactly the same with so-called 'Climate Scientists'."

    In response to my point about the possibility of catastrophic climate change, David English said, "There is more to know before societal policies should be put into play." Then he proceeded to tell me all the wonderful things fossil fuels have done for humans, as if I didn't know. When I asked David if he acknowledged the risk of waiting to know more, he didn't respond.

    David Bailey cited a Nobel Laureate physicist who points out that the science isn't *certain* regarding the risks of climate change. David doesn't seem to be aware that an appeal to authority is a classic and common fallacy. Besides that, no one is claiming that the science is certain, so it's a straw man argument, another fallacy.

    In other words, some of the smart people in this blog are saying the same dumb things that dumb people say. Smart people saying dumb things is why I put the odds at 50/50 that humans won't make a mess of things.

    Speaking of dumb people, it seems that very few people with political power want to discuss the really important issues. In the US we currently have an 800-pound gorilla ignoring the elephants in the room.

  36. Who is to blame? No one, really.

    ?? 26 centuries of breeding grotesquely misshapen "believers". I blame "Abraham". :-(

  37. Jonathan wrote: I also take the lack of education in the general population as a good sign . . . the great unwashed masses make great entertainment

    A technocracy of unwashed masses is dystopian. But maybe you're joking. Hard to tell with just text, no faces.

  38. Bleak thoughts for the darkest day of the year. It's an appropriate time to be pessimistic, and the sun will come back. As Chauncey the gardener said, "There will be growth in the spring".

  39. Phillip wrote: What has changed is that, until relatively recently in human history, catastrophes were local; folks elsewhere could survive. No longer.

    Yes, although it's conceivable that even in the event of certain worst-case scenarios, some pockets of humans would survive. Modern civilization might not survive.

    The universe would not shed a tear, even if we manage to mess up this wondrous planet for most other species as well. Some Christians might feel lucky to experience the End Times. Christian End Times fiction is a bestselling genre.

    Of course, our wondrous planet hasn't been entirely beneficent to life. More than 99% of all the species that ever existed are extinct.

    Cockeyed optimists like Julian Simon assume that no matter what we do to the goose that lays the golden eggs, we'll figure out how to keep it alive and laying. Indeed, Simon says that harming the goose is the very thing that motivates humans to be smart. The sicker the goose, the smarter we get.

    And if Julian Simon is wrong . . . well, people like Unknown will tell us not to waste our human intelligence on such possibilities. The worse it gets, the smarter we'll get. You'll see.

    This reminds me of the weekly cliffhangers in the old Batman TV show. No matter how certain it was that Batman and Robin were going to die, they always found a way to escape. :-)

  40. Sabine;

    Again your thinking and writing do not disappoint. I have nights like the one you described. But in the morning, those feelings usually subside. They never go away, but they do become manageable.

    Humanity is failing, but humanity has not yet failed. All we need is courage and perseverance; we can overcome the dangers.

    And you have courage; you’ve certainly proven that. And perseverance. To steal a line from a famous person; when you’re going through hard times, keep walking.

    All my best regards, and thanks for efforts this year and previous years.

    Keep on keeping on.

    There’s always another LEGO to step on, but I’d never regret getting them for my kids.

    Merry Xmas.

    sean s.

  41. Dear Sabien,

    I read your book as a personal travel log, as a journey to seek sense in current physics, a trip to recover your conviction that physics can be a key to understanding the world and possibly life itself. I believe physics had, and still has, that function in your life : to be a universal key. Although the faith has gone weak.

    Your blog and videos similarly contain biographical and scientific material. They mix it without confusine it. And so does this blog posting. You mention a car crash where you faced death for a few seconds. And you reflect on the end of the species. 1/

  42. I have, fortunately not yet faced the possibility of death, but working in a clinic, I have seen many do so. It is always a very personal experience, and that's what makes it a lonely one. No one can tell you how to do it, and, even when there is someone to hold your hand all along, it must still be very lonely.So I can't reflect on how it was for you, there and then. I am only certain that it will be fairly different next time you face this, and it will be very different when my turn comes. I believe, perhaps mistakenly, that we die as we have lived - how could we do otherwise ?

    I am less inclined to take your view on the future of humanity at face value. Yo're one of the experts on the phenomenology of quantum gravity. You are certain of the validity of reductionism. Yet physicists seem to agree that even calculating the properties or behavior of simple molecules from first principles ( ?) is a daunting task. Amino-acids, proteins, simple life forms are vastly more complex than a oxygen molecule. And yet.You seem so sure in extrapolating behaviour of large groups of people, even of humanity itself. As if you had a firm grasp of history and of the forces that are at work there. Even if history were deterministic. Which most historians certainly do not profess to believe. 2/

  43. In fact, humanity has come through a long series of crises, and survived. Arnold Toynbee, if you must read history, has reformulated all of it as a series of challenges civilisations have met and survived. Or not. For the latter category, you could read Jared Diamond ( " Collapse"). As for external factors, well, there always was the possibility of an asteroid obliterating us in one big strike. I guess we'll have to live with that.

    What I am trying to say - and I am certainly not an expert on meta-history either - is that you may be over generalizing . I respectfully submit that you may not have the knowledge base to engage in such speculation with any confidence with regards to your own musings. I believe no one has ever had the sort of knowledge required, not even Toynbee, Spengler or Braudel.3/

  44. The complexity of the systems involved, and the multitude of forces at work in them, make them so hard to understand and so utterly difficult to predict. Predicting doom as a foregone conclusion is simply not realistic, it seems to me.

    We live in a state of crisis, and a planetary one at that, true enough. But when our world was much smaller, we also lived in, what was to us there and then, a "planetary" crisis of sorts.In fact, we have survived many.Think of the situation near 70.000 BCE at the time of the Toba catastrophe, when global human population was probably reduced to 3.000 to 10.000 individuals. Return to 1600 BCE with the explosion of Santorini when the Mediterranean was the locus of western civilisation. Or consider the Black Death in Europe in the 14th century, to name but a few major disasters we survived. Recently, we did survive the nuclear standoff between superpowers, even the outright collaps of the Soviet Union. Remember those predictions of truck loads of nuclear bombs being sold to the highest bidder. It didn't happen.4/

  45. I am simply suggesting that over-generalization is a danger, possibly one of those biases you warn scientists against. So please do not indulge in them.

    These are my rumblings regarding your remarks, and they may be biased, more so since they seem to be fair and balanced to me.

    I take the opportunity to wish you, Stefan, Gloria and Lara a peaceful Christmas. And a successful 2019. Blessings.

    Denis 5/5

  46. Hi Sabine -

    There's no need to actually publish this comment as I don't care whether people see it or not. I presume to comment because I am grateful for the work you do explaining some of physics to non-specialists, standing up for women in academia, and so on ... and because you sound unhappy and that's a shame.

    It may be that you are worried because you have been talking to the systemic risk people where you work! I think it is possible to stay aware of the problems and try to contribute while reducing your level of freaked-out-ness and I think it makes our contributions more effective to do so.

    So - things that have worked for me include:

    * Stop reading, watching and listening to mass media. Nothing bad will happen, you will still understand the problem, and you will feel calmer.

    * If you don't already have one, find a practice that includes paying attention to what is going on inside and outside you without judging it - meditation, t'ai chi, psychotherapeutic modalities like Hakomi ... This can help a lot, not just with one's state of mind but with one's interactions with other people.

    * Allow yourself a (measured) does of optimism, even if you don't believe it. My drug of choice is Chris Goodall's blog, - he is an observer of moves to sustainable/renewable energy sources, he thinks market logic plus the contribution of a small number of governments (thankyou Germany) will get that part of the puzzle sorted, and maybe not too much too late.

    I think you are well placed to contribute to our learning how to live together with each other and the other living things. There will be people near you studying how people interact, make decisions and so on, they might be in academia or they might not. You could try to change how you do your job - for example, cutting your travel by 50% each year for three years, doing one day less work per week to do local political work, grow vegetables or learn conflict resolution - and you would have an audience for how your institution received those suggestions.

    It's true we haven't sorted out how to live in a global society but we've only been working on the problem about four times longer than people have been working on string theory. If we'd asked ourselves the question "how are we doing?" in 1942 or 1962 we'd've had no better feeling about it then than now and we've managed to get here from there.

    There's no way that I'm aware of to work out whether actions on an individual level can make a difference. Still, taking individual actions makes a difference to the individual at least. Do take care of yourself, please enjoy the holidays and the returning sunlight, thanks again for your work, and

    Herzliche Grüsse


  47. @Phillip Helbig: I think that is a straw man. You are making the claim that heavy metals have nothing to do with autism. Do a search on Google Scholar, you'll find 9500 published articles, several mentioning a "heated debate" on the topic. I am a research scientist that understands statistics and flaws in the application of it, and I have an autistic grandson with symptoms of deranged mineral transport, and I have read widely on the topic, and in my eyes the weight of evidence is clearly on the side of heavy metal interference. As I said, there is (to me) a clear statistical link there.

    It is not up to me to prove my claim, it is independently verifiable, nor is it my responsibility to educate you. In order to make your conclusive statement, it is your responsibility to prove conclusively no correlations exist.

    It also doesn't matter, in this case, whether correlation = causation or not; because if there IS causation, some correlation must exist as a result; and conclusively proving there is no correlation is sufficient to prove me wrong. But I can read a medical paper and I have read enough of them, in the last 12 years since my grandson was born, to know you won't be able to do that, and thus that you have a made a statement of fact you cannot prove.

    Which makes you a prime example of my thesis in my first post on this thread, that the vast majority of us aren't smart enough to consider the evidence before us. There may still be a "heated debate" on heavy metals and autism, but clearly the correlations we do find exist for a reason and should be investigated, either to identify cause and effect, or an underlying correlate, or to disprove the correlation with more comprehensive samples. Dismissing the correlation and declaring it non-existent and pointless to investigate is irresponsible politicking; there is dispassionate science to be done here.

  48. OK already! Time to get back to physics! And we need some kind of breakthrough to generate excitement and enthusiasm!

  49. "Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.”- Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

    No great civilization existed without slaves - nor survived freeing them. We are choosing poorly.

  50. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You are a wise and brave woman, unafraid to face reality no matter how grim. I agree with you on all counts, adding our failure to feed and shelter most members of our species. But for the sake of being positive I shall hope that the next species who tries it will do better. Maritza Garcia, Puerto Rico.

  51. Perhaps a final anecdote, about the more personal stuff in your writings, Sabien.
    An anecdote, not a criticism.

    My dad was a very responsible man.
    When he was 90 ( and still had a clear mind) I asked him how he had had the silly idea of marrying my mum.In 1941, in nazi-occupied Belgium. Having been a graduate student before the war, still having to complete his thesis (which he did in 1946), and having gotten involved in the Resistance. What sort of decision was this for a responsible man?

    He seemed surprised, thought about it for a few moments, then said : "for all we knew, that war could have lasted forever. What couldn't last forever was my engagement with your mother. We had been engaged for four years, I loved her so I married her." To him this was clearly a coherent and perfectly valid argument.

    By the way, dad got to be 91, mum 94 and death did part them. I am convinced theirs was a happy marriage ( but not a rose garden). So you see, a bit of optimism has its uses ;-)

  52. There are always two sides. Sabine, you may be having a winter solstice, but here it is the summer one. And we note that while the oceans are warming, the Tasman seems to be warming seriously faster than other oceans. Over spring, temperatures here have been seriously warmer than average. If it were not for melting ice, it would actually be quite pleasant.

    Why can't we do something about it? My view is there are too many people saying that OTHER people should stop doing something. I recall some who advocate everyone cycle to reduce emissions. They cycled, but then sent all the money they saved on jet travel. Further, the people who say people should stop doing something tend to be the ones who insist we do not even study possible geoengineering options to fix the problem because such action would "change the planet". Actually, we have changed it. Where I live would be unrecognisable to anyone who lived here 200 years ago. It is also wrong, in my opinion, to say people are too stupid. The problem is the political economic system. The politician will not make significant changes unless absolutely required because it loses votes and ends the career. To stop making things means a cascade of people become out of work. If anyone thinks making substantial change is easy, ask Theresa May. Compared with readjusting the planet's economy, Brexit is simple, but May is having a nightmare of a time.

    So, let's not get depressed. Sabine, have a pleasant Christmas and whatever holiday period you are going to have. The sun will shine tomorrow, at least somewhere, and summer is coming for you. Now, for me, the six months month forecast is, er, winter.

  53. Dr. Hossenfelder,

    You make many points here, some more directly, some more obliquely. But this is THE point:

    "...All the money in the world will not lead to scientific breakthroughs if we don’t have sufficiently many people with the sufficient education...."

    Says me (just only me): we were doing fine until we scrapped our educational system. We would still be doing fine if we hadn't.

    But what that neglects is the emotional imperative to scrap it, which has not been analyzed, and which (says me) would have found some other outlet if the impulse to destroy education had somehow been baulked.

    From 1987:

    Consider well
    And the dialogue
    Of needs and ambitions
    From which it springs:

    The unnecessariness of broadcasting,
    The urgency of postage,
    The labs (outwardly similar)
    That gave us angel dust
    And television.

    What beasts are we?
    How shall we live
    Amid the intolerable fruits of reason --
    Or without?

    What will we have, of all
    That God and We have made,
    Tangible and elusive,
    Intangible but imprisoning?

    Shall we seek to know
    Or not to know, as
    Shakespeare once did not say?

    What knew he?
    What knew he of engines,
    Microprocessor-controlled, or yet
    Of steam?

    Yet the will
    At once to be and un-be:
    That he knew, and we know still,
    Amid discrepant toys
    From factories,
    Some to help us be,

  54. Thank you, Sabine, for your openness and astute judgments. I've been a population activist for three decades. It's a Sisyphean task as around 225,000 net additional "plague species" are added daily. Quadrupling in the lifespan of a living member of a large mammal is key to that moniker. The worsening global pollution comments are correct. Nanoplastics are now found in the fish and meat we eat. Nasty chemicals are in many water supplies.

    Re the comment: "The only way to defeat the unreasonable is to outnumber them. However, that doesn't mean a war of extermination. The fact is that the scientifically inclined outnumber the rest; but we do not unite around these issues."

    80+% of humans are said to believe in supernaturals. I don't consider them "reasonable" nor "scientific." Plus the fecundity of the scientific is dwarfed by the superstitious.

    Sorry for the delay in this. The blog post hit my inbox within the past two hours. Happy Solstice. It will get physically brighter by the day!

  55. @everyone

    It is not a question of intelligence. Cockroaches are not intelligent and yet they survive quite well. It is a question of ego - of drive - that compels humans to act unsustainably. If, as some people suggest, life exists to expel heat into space, then individual humans need to integrate into their egos the fact that, as a collective species, humanity can expel far more heat into space over the course of its existence if and only if it acts within the ecological confines of earth. I think that culturally many people are trying to do just that. This is qualitatively different than intelligence - more psychological actually - and the difference matters for the purposes of this discussion.

    Also, in regards to short term (0-200 years) potential calamities, nothing compares to the threat of nuclear war.

  56. When all feels lost, then it is the time of success.

  57. Some pick me up reading to make one feel better about the state of the World.

    Bill Gates's review of Factfulness by Hans Rosling

    Bill Gates's review of Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

  58. Yes, and here the additional burden is feeling somehow responsible for inflicting on the planet a figure whose first sign of life in the morning is an electromagnetic flatulence that is incredibly pervasive, pollutes the global morning air and draws forth lonely, pale-faced spirits dragging their Tiki torches through the heartland.

    And somewhat related, there is talk about a local waitress who was fired from her job for farting. Apparently, it’s not a civil right. This news from an elderly neighbor who was raised on a ranch north of here. She ought to be conservative, but is outraged by our flatulent fellow, is aware of his every rhetorical slight-of-hand.

    So, the good news is we may underestimate the distributed intelligence and its resilience. Democracy is supposed to put that intelligence to the helm. Well, sometimes there’s problem but orbital mechanics says the light will return. Breathe deep the waking child.

  59. My Dear Sabine,

    It's always the End of the World. It's always the Beginning of the World. No need to despair. It's the solstice and the sun is returning. If the winter doldrums overwhelm you, run away to the south. To a warm beach, a cold drink; to watch your children play in the surf.

    Tradition demands we raise a glass, of equal parts laughter and good cheer, against the darkest nights. Do not forsake that obligation. Rest. Relax. Gather yourself anew. Things always look better in spring's waxing light. Your voice is important in this world that's always ending, and always beginning.

    Best wishes!

  60. Thanks for your melancholic post. I resonate with it. Yes, we are failing. To me there are two main reasons for this:

    The biological cause (the least serious one): No species on this planet seems able to rein in themselves. It will keep expanding (in numbers) until someone or something puts an end to it, it being other species or the emptying of ressources. I consider this a farcical flaw in the very heart of biology, and in view of all the conflicts it inevitably creates, it is one of the main indicators to me that behind life there certainly cannot be any creator that is both benevolent and omnipotent (but that of course is an entirely different discussion).

    The mental cause (the most serious one): With the possible exception of a few animals, dolphins and elephants say, humans stand out among all species on this planet in their capacity to self-awareness. This capacity naturally brings along with it all sorts of existential worries and anxieties. It seems to me that our culture is built first and foremost around the (futile) attempt to try to expel/jettison these burdens from our mind. All the running around, all the physical agitations, is to me little more than an expression of this endavour. I flatout hate having to live in that mentally and acoustically noisy environment. Just take the upcoming New Year's celebration event, the completely overarticulated scale of which is to me directly proportional to the spiritual (not religious) impoverishment of modern man.

    To the biological cause, one may perhaps add the observation that sexual selection seems to select, more often than not, those traits of man which now threatens the very biosphere, the 'scene' on which the aim of these sexual forces - creation of children - will have to take stage. The planlessness of this setup seems to me exquisitly stupid and without peer.

    Not least in view of these observations, I am convinced that technology will not rescue us. It will only possibly buy us some extra time. The problem with technology is that although it may solve some problems, it creates new problems because it is almost immediately subsumed into 1.) mans attempts to impress other (and perhaps even himself) and a mate, 2.) mans attempts to suppress or at least alleviate any unpleasentness of life, either physical or mental, and 3.) mans attempt to prevail over others, in one way another. The result is always the same: any leeway created by technology will quickly be exhausted by the very options it opened up in the first place.

    What is needed, therefore, is not some technological revolution; what is needed is, in my view, a mental revolution. But I don't think that is going to materialize in any sufficient way, not least because we live in a time where it has never been easier to divert oneself from ones inner life - and thus avoid confronting the 'demons' within - via consumption, via the mobile phone, via the socalled social media, etc. Thus I believe that our civilization is doomed. As you say, Sabine, we are just too stupid. To this I may add, we are simply not brave enough. In view of that, I am happy to be childless.

    Anyway, merry Christmas and a happy new year to you. I very much enjoy reading your blog.

  61. ... And the morning fart was detected by the LEGO, the pink one.

  62. “You're an expert on quantum gravity. You believe in reductionism. Yet calculating the properties or behavior of simple molecules from first principles is a daunting task.” ~ found herein

    “Diamonds in a dunghill.” ~ another Virginian

  63. Perhaps some of you missed this:

    Scientists under siege in Nicaragua

    Ongoing protests and a security crackdown in Nicaragua have engulfed the country’s scientists, causing some to flee their homes in fear for their lives. Universities have fired faculty members who have criticized the administration, and scientific conferences have been moved or postponed. The government has shut down and seized the property of nine non-governmental organizations, including the Fundación del Río, which focuses on environmental protections for the southeastern region of Nicaragua.

    Nature | 5 min read

    The Harper govt in Canada ( prior to J.Trudeau) cut research and destroyed records. Look it up. The US has been facing similar pressures under the orange baboon. He is a puppet of course, and the fundamentalists and monopolists are pulling the strings.

    Rosling, Lomborg, Pinker, J.Simon, and other techno-optimists cherry-pick data and stats. They avoid whole-system analyses and are anthrocentric to the max.

    Kurtz has a gloomy spot in literature: Heart of Darkness (Conrad), referred to in The Hollow Men (Eliot), and Apocalypse Now. I apologize for not being an exception. Enjoying life is my only revenge. Gloom is no fun.

  64. John,

    I think there may be more cause for hope than that. For millennia, pre-colonial Native Americans thrived across large swaths of North America in a sustainable manner. By all accounts, they intuitively understood the importance of preservation and respect for the natural environment and all forms of life. It is not beyond possibility therefore that humans at large might be able to do the same in the future.

    I live in Los Angeles now but I grew up in Joplin, MIssouri. Many people there and throughout the midwest and south have a type of simplicity about them - an understated if not pious approach to the world. They instinctively recoil at waste and excess and tend to allocate resources relatively efficiently. They don't [like to] use things once and throw them away. They save their money. And yet, in the aggregate, they are not as intelligent as Silicon Valley technology entrepreneurs - most of whom probably wouldn't think twice about hopping on a private jet just to attend a house party in Montreal.

    Recovery of the Native American respect for the natural environment would begin with a massive cultural shift in what is perceived as desirable. Attraction would arise from efficient allocation and conservation of resources. Dishonesty - which many species utilize - would be universally condemned. Profligacy would be unattractive. Awareness of the tragedy of the commons would be deeply instinctual.

    It's not impossible. Many humans today exhibit these traits - some much more than others. The kernels from which to grow are there. We aren't dead yet.

  65. Well Sabine,
    This is probably the most commented post on this site. Good job.
    Just some remarks about some reactions to my very early post:
    1- Not being an ecologist does not mean I go around polluting, .. Heck I even have a hybrid car. And seeing the pollution that is made to produce these batteries, I feel a little guilt. A side note: CO2 is NOT a pollution. And those who go around lecturing people not to use their cars, use private jets. So better clean up before their doors.
    2- Population bomb: this silly idea is around since Malthus. Proven wrong locally and globally, but people still cling to it. Baffling. Prof. Ehrlich wrote his book in the 70s, none of his predictions passed, and he's still trying to push the same ideas. Al gore preaches about this and has 4 children. Well why he's entitled to these not the others?
    3- Optimists cherry picking the data: If any one remembers the Simon-Holdren(&Ehrlich) bet, Simon left picking the materials to Holdren, and Simon won.

    Lastly, don't worry, be Happy.

  66. I was just having a similar conversation with a friend of mine on this. He's a cynical sceptic whereas I remain an optimist. It's seems to me that organising 6 billion people is a very tall order. We've had thirty years to get legislation and action on climate change right, that seems a long time - and it is compared to our lifetimes - but nevertheless it's a short time scale when trying to get together legislation on a global scale when our global institutions are so weak and when this is going against very powerful vested interests. It will happen, eventually, though of course the earlier it happens then so much the better for all of us.

    Merry Xmas.

  67. Dover Beach

    (written back in 1867)

    The sea is calm tonight.
    The tide is full, the moon lies fair
    Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
    Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
    Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
    Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
    Only, from the long line of spray
    Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
    Listen! you hear the grating roar
    Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
    At their return, up the high strand,
    Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
    With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
    The eternal note of sadness in.

    Sophocles long ago
    Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
    Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
    Of human misery; we
    Find also in the sound a thought,
    Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

    The Sea of Faith
    Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
    Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
    But now I only hear
    Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
    Retreating, to the breath
    Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
    And naked shingles of the world.

    Ah, love, let us be true
    To one another! for the world, which seems
    To lie before us like a land of dreams,
    So various, so beautiful, so new,
    Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
    Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
    And we are here as on a darkling plain
    Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
    Where ignorant armies clash by night.

  68. "Who is to blame? "
    The Templeton Foundation. They want the world to end because Jesus the Saviour will return. Luke Barnes is modelling the 2nd Advent on his Commodore 64 with a $1 quintillion Templeton grant.

    Phillip Helbig said...
    "As H.G. Wells said, civilization is a race between education and catastrophe."

    How can you complain about a general lack of education? You think the universe is "fine-tuned" without a shred of evidence.

  69. Sabine has a point. Especially when she is listening to the generations of the generations. Who knows what's keeping alive the homo species right know. Who knows for how long from now on. I admit, the scientific language Sabine is using gives her the logos to go on. Thank you.

  70. A story for winter solstice would have had more content had it examined the way ancient peoples identified it- and what it meant to them.

    Angst is not original- nor is blaming others for our own angst.

  71. This was not bad mood. She wouldn't call negative (but realistic) thoughts winter solstice if she expected them to persist... So I only see an optimist reflecting the deep winter thoughts. Not even a realist delibarating the inevitable fading and final doom after a lot of failing.

  72. Unknown wrote: Bill Gates's review of Factfulness by Hans Rosling [and] Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker.

    I've read both books. They're both good for people who somehow don't realize that humans have made some progress. I remember reading a similar kind of book back in the 1980's called The Good News is the Bad News is Wrong by Ben Wattenberg.

    I'm assuming Sabine (and everyone else here) already knows the good news.

    I'm curious if you've read those books and if you learned anything significant that you didn't already know.

  73. Uli wrote: So try to think more positive, don't worry to much

    I'm not sure that positive thinking necessarily means that we shouldn't at least be aware of the problems we're facing, and talk about them at least once in a while.

  74. Greg,

    Thanks for trying to breathe some hope into me. You of course have a point. Indigenous people, being it Native Americans (what I am used to just calling indians), Aboriginies in Australia, or the Inuits (or eskimos) in the Arctic, just to name a few, truly lived in a much more sustainable manner, respecting Mother Nature. They had to do so because they had not at their disposal the (technological) power that modern man has, and was therefore in the mercy of her forces to a much higher degree than we are today. It is therefore in principle "not beyond possibility [...] that humans at large might be able to do the same in the future" [my emphasis], I must concur. But I find it highly unlikely that it will happen, and certainly not within the very short window of time that is us now left.

    The irony is that the very thing - technology - which at the same time made us loose contact with- and respect for nature, is the thing that is called upon - like a mantra - to save us. It is, however, not hard to see why this is necessarily so, I think. Politicians are to a large degree shackled in at least two ways: 1.) by their electorates, the majority of which are in actuality unwilling to give the politicians any real mandate to regulate their behaviour, by reigning in much of their presently given freedom to consume, and 2.) market forces, not least the post-Reagan/Thatcher unregulated financial ones. Entertaining the hope that technology will be a panacea (a behaviour that I describe as "engaging in 'sci-fi-masturbation'"), politicians can at the same time avoid upsetting their voters and the markets. And, ta-da!, most voters, and the markets themselves buy into this narrative, simply because it is so pleasantly convenient. "Don't rock the boat!" seems to be the motto.


  75. Re techno-optimism, have a look at this very short book. (5 Massey Lectures in Canada, 2004) I taught a 6 session short course on it some years later.

    "Changes brought on by the exponential growth of human population (at the time of the book's publication, over 6 billion [now 7.6+B]and adding more than 200 million people every three years) and the worldwide scale of resource consumption, have altered the picture, however. Ecological markers indicate that human civilization has now surpassed (since the 1980s) nature's capacity for regeneration. We are now using more than 125% of nature's yearly output. "If civilization is to survive, it must live on the interest, not the capital of nature" (129). He concludes that "now is our chance to get the future right"—the collapse of human civilization is imminent if we do not act now to prevent it (132)."

    Note that as destruction and toxification of habitat increases, the carrying capacity for humans *decreases.* Pollinators are a good example now.

  76. Perhaps I should add the following: There are of course technologies that 1.) are not so readily susceptible to being subsumed into any of the three items mentioned in my post yesterday to Sabine (I realized that only after posting), and that 2.) seems to bring us at least a bit closer in contact with nature again. And that is wind and solar power. A massive shift from fossil fuel to these energy ressources would indisputably be a big step forward. But to believe that technology alone will rescue us remains in my view a (highly dangerous) illusion, not least because there are material bottlenecks: Are there, for instance, enough rare metals on the planet to electrify the whole transport sector? I don't think so; and I think Elon Musk has had to realize that as well. And to imagine airliners flying on electricity is to really, really engage in 'sci-fi-masturbation'; "fuck gravity!" seems to be the motto in that case.

  77. ... and special relativity is dead. And no one like to notice.

    If a traveller measures the distances with his own scale which are valid for his own inertial system, he don't see any contractions, as the "realtivists" claim.

    There are no nearer positioned stars if someone moved, there are no contracted space ships, there are no younger twin-parts, there is no movement caused dilations or contractions anywhere outside the tenuous imagination of the "relativists".

    There is only a big fallacy and the overlooked application of Lorentz-transformation to the units which are relevant for the parties concerned.

    Merry christmas!

    Albrecht Storz

  78. I feel we should stop seeing various indigenous peoples as paragons of virtue with regard to their supposed superior stewardship of the Earth. This is mostly romantic myth. It is simply that they were constrained by their ignorance of technology. Also, their numbers were extremely low. A key reason many were nomadic was that they tended to use up the available (to them) resources in an area, so they had to move on.

    Their way of life was generally not something any of us would desire or enjoy. More to the point, their imagined ecological excellence isn't possible in today's world. Not with 325 million of us in the USA it isn't. Unless we break up into small nomadic tribes. (We hippies tried that in the 1960s with communes. It rarely worked well.)

    Scope lies at the heart of my view here. The sheer size of the human race is, to me, a game-changer. Many things, population, technology, are on exponential growth curves. Compare the last ten years to the last one-hundred.

    A curve like that often ends in a catastrophic way (in both the mathematical and social sense). We can only hope damping factors kick in and turn them into "S" folds where we asymptotically avoid disaster.

    Narratively, the human race comes together in times of great peril, and we do see that on the small scale fairly often. Historically, though, the human race doesn't have a great track record, so we'll see.

    OTOH, New Horizons reaches Ultima Thule on New Year's Day, so that's something to look forward to!

  79. "The irony is that the very thing - technology - which at the same time made us loose contact with- and respect for nature, is the thing that is called upon - like a mantra - to save us."
    There is some irony in this. Probably since introduction of agriculture humanity is no longer stable, meaning cannot keep it's way of living without either proceeding and solving upcoming problems or running into catastrophes. The way forward has led to technology and will need more technology to go ahead. Pure 'conservatism' as keeping some state of the art/culture/technology does not work - for most here I don't have to explain why. But that does not imply, that the solutions to all problems will come automatically or are only technological. Where would we be without social, political, constitutional etc. progress, without the Enlightenment - as feebly anchore this seems to be in many heads. And even science, technology and it's utilization needs guidance and a society making proper use of it. You can easily use it to destroy the world. Not only the (principle) possibilities to solve problems increase, also the dangers of new problems or side effects of technologies - think of the FCKW for example. I think the big problem is, that the human capability or rather willingness to deal with these is not keeping up. Overcoming the instability of short-term (or local) advantages versus long-term (or global) threats is where humanity is failing blatantly.

  80. @John Fredsted:

    >to believe that technology alone will rescue us remains in my view a (highly dangerous) illusion, not least because there are material bottlenecks: Are there, for instance, enough rare metals on the planet to electrify the whole transport sector?

    Right, because what problems for humanity has technology ever solved? Oh wait. Nearly all of them.

    You do not need "rare metals" to use solar power, a simple parabolic dish or trough made of polished aluminum can focus the sun to do work; including via a closed cycle steam engine (or Stirling heat engine) producing electricity, using only iron and copper windings. Aluminum is the 3rd most abundant element in the crust after oxygen and silicon, and technology solved the problem of extracting it. Iron the 4th. Copper is more rare, but still plentiful. I will point out this is a net negative heating, the sunlight would have warmed the ground if not intercepted by the mirror, and the work it is made to do translates some of the heat into motion thus reducing the net heat absorbed by the planet. Even if the steam engine is not closed, it is still a zero-emissions technology. Nor do modern steam engines require oil or anything else for lubrication.

    For those unfamiliar with the tech this is thermal solar. It can be implemented with last century's technology and maintained by people with a high school education (or less), and it doesn't take much research to see that not only is this a perfectly viable route to powering the entire world, it also does not demand any large centralized facility, it is distributable tech down to the size of a home. Nor is storage of energy for when the sun isn't shining an issue; there are modest losses in using excess energy production to pump water to a higher reservoir and draining it through turbines to a lower reservoir to meet dark demand.

    I doubt you can change human nature in time to solve the global warming problems facing humanity. Conservation will never be enough, we'd be living in medieval villages again with zero tech. The solution is tech or nothing.

    The big problem is that the average citizen is not really facing any pain for continuing to use fossil fuels, and because there is no pain they can't be bothered to do anything about it. When that changes, and they are willing to ditch the fossil fuel industry (which will go down swinging), then thermal solar technology is already waiting for them. And as a bonus, it can solve the fresh water problems in the bargain, because as long as we are using steam engines we might as well invent an automatic self-cleaning boiler for our steam engine that distills ocean water in the process of generating energy.

  81. Chris Sonnack writes "I feel we should stop seeing various indigenous peoples as paragons of virtue with regard to their supposed superior stewardship of the Earth. This is mostly romantic myth. It is simply that they were constrained by their ignorance of technology.".


    take copper extraction from ore, acid vs heat (electricity): one is slow and very labour intensive, the other not. both methods were used in the past. the heat method is more polluting but cheaper (for some definition of cheap), care to speculate why "we" do not use the more environmentally "friendly" method?

  82. Just a small comment: many here talk about exponential growth of world population. From where they get this idea? According to this site (, population growth rate is falling since the 1960s, and is currently very close to 1%. And if you put all humans in a city like Paris, France (same pop density), that will be barely more than half France's size, with all Earth left empty. Mind you, I live in Paris, and won't like any such thing. But this gives you a sense of the scale.
    I also agree with Chris S. comment about idealizing indigenous people: they lived by the means they have at their disposal. They may have loved Nature, but in many cases that did not extend to the other tribes. Any one care to explain why Middle Easterners did not have that love for Nature, it seems, nor for each others by the way.

  83. Dr. H has frequently asserted that she is a "superdeterminist" who does not believe in agency or freewill. If her belief is correct then why be either gloomy or optimistic about the future?

  84. I've read those excellent books by Pinker and Rosling. They aren't 'cherry-picking' anything or pushing 'optimism'. They're trying to get us to recognize and confront a deep-seated cognitive bias that's the result of decades of over-the-top, for-profit 'news coverage' that's eager to sell you the 2 steps back, but ignores the 3 steps forward.

  85. The tragedy of today's world is that nations on the lower per capita income/resource-energy consumption side of the chart, are the ones with the greatest population growth in absolute terms. They are the ones that are driving the massive human population growth. These are nations that can least afford to carry the burden of more and more citizens, which only exacerbates the degree of poverty and misery within these nations. In contrast, it is the developed nations, located on the highest per capita income/resource-energy consumption side of the chart, that make the smallest contribution to global population growth in absolute terms. With such a dichotomy it's no wonder that people from the poverty stricken regions are desperately seeking a better life in the developed world, making long journeys under hazardous conditions. Indeed, it is largely this migration from poor to wealthy nations that is driving what population increase there is in the developed world. Only developed nations with strict immigration control, like Japan, are experiencing a decline in population.

    So the world, indeed, is in quite a mess and it will take dedicated efforts on the parts of all the world's nations to solve these problems. New and better energy/resource conserving technology is of course helping, but it's only part of the overall equation.

  86. I agree with David Schroder. This may be of interest from 2 months ago:

    "If these two tendencies, population growth and agricultural decline, crash against each other, the result might well be a Seneca Cliff for the world's human population."

    Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, and ASPO (peak oil).

  87. "It also doesn't matter, in this case, whether correlation = causation or not; because if there IS causation, some correlation must exist as a result"

    But not vice versa; while causation can imply correlation, the reverse is not necessarily true. This is such a basic fact of science and logic that I think it is a waste of time to delve more deeply into your arguments if you can't get even this elementary fact of the scientific method right.

  88. jim_h wrote: I've read those excellent books by Pinker and Rosling. They aren't 'cherry-picking' anything or pushing 'optimism'.

    I didn't say that those books cherry-picked or pushed optimism. I said that they showed how we've made progress, which as far as I can tell would only be useful for people who somehow don't realize we've made progress.

    Unknown and Jim are fans of these books, but I'll ask again: Did *you* learn anything new and significant from them? I didn't.

    jim_h wrote: They're trying to get us to recognize and confront a deep-seated cognitive bias that's the result of decades of over-the-top, for-profit 'news coverage' that's eager to sell you the 2 steps back, but ignores the 3 steps forward.

    Here's the thing: The cognitive bias you mention works both ways. There is at least as much irrational optimism as pessimism. The US got involved in two unending wars. There was the global financial crisis of 2007/2008. Last year the US gave a huge tax cut to the rich. The US elected Trump. For decades, the US has been waging a war on drugs. And so on. Irrational optimism plays a key role in all of that.

    In the US, there are lots of people who "optimistically" believe that we'd be much better off if only we were a Christian nation, a white nation, a nation in which everyone carries guns, a nation that makes abortion and homosexuality illegal.

    You mention two steps forward and three steps back. Often enough, people see progress as a problem. For example, even today there are plenty of conservatives who regard the Civil Rights Act of the 1960's and Roe v. Wade in 1973 as steps back, not steps forward. You can't blame those perceptions on the news media. You can't blame the messenger for the message.

    Consider the example of cleaner air and water because of regulations. The news media correctly reports that air and water (in the US) are much better now than in the 1960's and 70's. The news media also correctly reports that many conservatives claim that environmental regulations are harmful to business and people in general, and therefore should be rolled back on a large scale. Consequently, there are people who think environmental regulations are a step forward and others who think they're a step back. We can't blame the news media for that.

    Bottom line: What is the bigger problem?

    If we're talking about large masses of ignorant people, who don't realize or appreciate some of the progress we've made, is irrational pessimism or irrational optimism the bigger problem? If authors like Pinker and Rosling can somehow get some part of the ignorant masses to recognize the progress we've made, will that also make them less irrational about the cockeyed optimistic solutions to the problems we're facing?

  89. Someone @Unknown: " to speculate why 'we' do not use the more environmentally "friendly" method?"

    I think anyone with even a passing familiarity with the human race can answer that one.

  90. Phillip Helbig said...

    "But not vice versa; while causation can imply correlation, the reverse is not necessarily true. This is such a basic fact of science and logic "

    Other facts that are as plain as the nose on one's face:

    String Theory is not (yet) a physical theory.
    There is *zero* evidence of universal fine-tuning.
    Human-induced climate change is an empirical fact.
    "Religions" are simply primitive superstitions believed by the delusional.

    But there are even trained physicists who fail to grasp some of these basic facts. Like you, for example.

  91. It's Christmas Eve, and I've got a lot to do tomorrow to make sure my family has a merry Christmas, so I haven't time to read all the previous posts. But did want to point out the obvious, even if it's been said before.

    We are absolutely successful as a species. We are so successful that we are outstripping our resources to support the population increases.

    This is causing the genocidal tendencies seen in my country (the US) these days.

    Science can do much to help stretch our resources.

    However, science can't help to make people FEEL that genocidal tendencies are wrong.

    Merry Christmas to you all.

  92. Thank you, Sabine. I found you, of all things, by impulsively googling "Christmas feels intolerable in light of the climate crisis”. You’ve helped me feel a little less alone, as a mother, as someone who understands well enough the science and human nature both. To discover you are also a physicist, science writer and philosopher of science is a stab of joy in the bleakness.

    Your assessment is sober, your despair warranted. Any other reaction to our situation strikes me as unhinged. Yet among the insanity of news headlines are nestled cheery ads for the bustling flow of holiday shoppers, as if they can genuinely co-exist in one rational schema. The cognitive dissonance is breaking me.

    Looking the truth square in the face, gutting as it is, does not hurt nearly as much as listening to others ignoring, downplaying or denying it.

    There is no precedent for this, no actuarial data from which to write the insurance policies. What has or hasn’t happened to us in the past is irrelevant. We’ve never faced and certainly never overcome anything like this.

    We have eaten the seed corn and we can’t pretend next year’s harvest will magically appear. So as I nurse my little one in the darkness this Christmas eve, I appreciate your bluntness and candour, as well as your grief. I think it’s high time we collectively freak out. Panic and rage, alongside despair, are appropriate responses. They may even galvanize just enough of us into action.

  93. If those nations with burgeoning populations can successfully rein in their numbers, and major technological improvements/breakthroughs in agriculture and energy production (hot fusion) can be achieved, then the future could be a lot brighter than present prognostications suggest. We could see a future world in which the standard of living is fairly uniform globally, and the ecological footprint of humanity is sustainable in the biosphere. But for this rosy picture to be realized much work needs to be done.

  94. @Phillip Helbig: You seem to have missed the point altogether, with a knee-jerk answer. What the heck does "vice versa" mean? Re-parse my sentence! I am acknowledging the very thing you complain about; I am fully aware that correlation does not imply causation, but that fact does not MATTER because causation will be accompanied by correlation.

    It is true that many things can cause correlation, but the reason we investigate correlations is because of the "vice versa", there are not many causes that will produce no correlation.

    One hypothesis to account for the rise of autism is that deranged mineral transport (DMT) in the immune system causes heavy metals to build up and cause brain damage in children we diagnose with "autism". We can test for DMT in multiple ways. Also, if DMT is responsible, we should see more cases in areas where the exposure to heavy metals is greater.

    I am saying if the hypothesis is false then we should see very little or no correlation, and I would accept that finding as reason to discredit the DMT hypothesis. Those suggesting it would need to produce some other testable hypothesis to explain this lack of correlation.

    However, there IS correlation between both levels of pollution and the incidence of DMT, and the diagnosis of autism, even after controlling for other factors.

    Thus, although it is insufficient to confirm the hypothesis, we cannot dismiss it out of hand, as you have done by making the claim that heavy metals have nothing to do with autism. That is also pretty basic science.

    The heavy metal question remains viable, and offers a plausible biological mechanism to investigate.

  95. @Catherine K: "Looking the truth square in the face, gutting as it is, does not hurt nearly as much as listening to others ignoring, downplaying or denying it."

    Precisely. I feel exactly the same way. Thanks.

  96. Castaldo wrote: The heavy metal question remains viable, and offers a plausible biological mechanism to investigate.

    Both of you agree that heavy-metal pollution is harmful. Is perfect agreement on every point the enemy of good agreement on the main point? :-)

  97. @ Mason et al

    Brother Ali got kicked off a tour sponsored by Verizon over this song. My experience says Bee tends not to post entries that have webpage references, but if this makes it this really hits hard at the sick underbelly of American society and nation.

    Money is sacred and power is God.

  98. @Steven Mason: The main point is his absolutist and indefensible claim that "there is no evidence that it causes autism" that he calls "pseudo-science". Here is a 2010 article debunking that view, Sorting out the spinning of autism: heavy metals and the question of incidence. The first four pages debunk the notion there has been no rise in autism, and that rise is all due to methodological changes.

    Also, of 58 PubMed papers published at the time, 43 found links between heavy metal exposure and autism; only 15 did not, and they go on to demonstrate the statistical methodology flaws in specific papers that invalidate the results of those papers. A further excerpt; p166:

    Independent lab groups have now shown that autism rate at the level of school districts is not random but appears related to the amount of and distance to toxic missions within states (Palmer et al. 2008, DeSoto 2009). Exposure to toxins during pregnancy or early infancy predict later ASD symptoms (Eskenazi et al. 2007). Second, the ability of low levels of mercury (levels that 8% of American women have in their blood streams) to cause specific damage to developing human brain cells have quite clearly been demonstrated (e.g., Tamm and Duckworth 2006).

    An objective assessment of the studies rules out declaring non-existent the link between heavy metals and the rise in the diagnoses of autism; it also rules out the non-existence of that rise. As I mentioned, both hair analysis relative to same-house parents and siblings, and environmental factors, contribute to the conclusion of about 3/4 of PubMed researchers that both the heavy metal link and the rise in autism due to environmental factors are real.

    This is not pseudo-science. Claiming definitively there is no link and no rise ignores the actual evidence and constitutes proof-by-applause, or proof-by-fame, or proof-by-wishful-thinking, whatever you want to call that claim, it isn't grounded in science but emotion.

    That is the main point, and one on which we do not agree.

  99. Lawrence wrote: My experience says Bee tends not to post entries that have webpage references

    I've seen a number of comments that have webpage links. I have no idea if Sabine is selectively blocking any of them.

  100. Castaldo wrote: The main point is his absolutist and indefensible claim that "there is no evidence that it causes autism" that he calls "pseudo-science".

    I was just pointing out that you both agree that heavy-metal pollution is harmful. For me, at least, that is the main main point. I didn't mean to imply that the two of you shouldn't discuss autism.

    I don't know enough about the topic to offer an opinion. I'd be surprised if researchers felt they knew enough to rule it out as a possible cause for some cases, so in that context, I wouldn't call it pseudoscience.

  101. Quite a few of these comments affect a sad contempt for "the ignorant public" that scarcely appreciates the wisdom of science. I suspect, though, that although Doomesday is nigh you are all still applying for grants or hoping for tenure. Why?

    And, as I mentioned above, if Dr. H is correct in her superdeterminism then what will be, will be -- including an uninhabitable earth. So, what is there to worry about?

    You all sound like the Millerites who, in 1843, donned their ascension robes and sat on the roof ridges of their barns to await the Apocalypse.

    Humanity has never lived better and all this hand-wringing makes scientists look fatuous. We,"the ignorant public," need people who can cure cancer or create calorie-free chocolate. Most of us are not in the market for prophets.

  102. I recommend you avoid links. I approve comments with links if I recognize the website as a reliable source, or if I have myself checked the website and it looks okay. Alas, I normally don't have time to check websites in comments myself, so more likely than not I'll just leave the comment unpublished. Exceptions are links to well-known pages like, say, the NYT, Wikipedia, BBC, the arXiv, etc.

  103. @Castaldo: You may have a point that one does not necessarily need rare metals for solar power. But what about the batteries for the electrification of the transport sector, specifically cars, planes, and ships?

    PS: Sorry for the late reply.

  104. Phillip Helbig said...

    But not vice versa; while causation can imply correlation, the reverse is not necessarily true. This is such a basic fact of science and logic "

    Other facts that are as plain as the nose on one's face:

    String Theory is not (yet) a physical theory.
    There is *zero* evidence of universal fine-tuning.
    Human-induced climate change is an empirical fact.
    "Religions" are simply primitive superstitions believed by the delusional.

    But there are even trained physicists who fail to grasp some of these basic facts. Like you, for example.

    I have never said much at all publicly about string theory. I certainly haven't praised it. For what it's worth, I'm reading a book on loop quantum gravity now. I have never denied that human-induced climate change is an empirical fact. I am an atheist.

    The bigger problem is that there are commentators who can't even get their facts straight when attempting to accuse someone.

  105. @John Fredsted: But what about the batteries for the electrification of the transport sector, specifically cars, planes, and ships?

    I'm not sure what elements (in limited supply) are used in batteries. I understand cobalt is an issue, and necessary for lithium batteries, but at least according to analysis of Earth's crust, both of those are about 1/3 as prevalent as copper; so I suspect any cobalt shortage is solved by mining or developing extraction technology.

    On the other hand, we don't have to rule out liquid fuels altogether. For example solar power can be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen (electrolysis). Both can be liquefied and can both be non-carbon fuels; in fact the Space Shuttle was powered by those two. That whole process can be 100% automated by a solar installation.

    I'm not a fuel chemist or engineer, but perhaps other green fuels can be synthesized similarly. Even if the energy put into synthesizing a fuel is double or triple the net energy we can get back out of it, keep in mind that the energy expended is not the real issue as long as it is thermal-solar: greenhouse gases that trap heat are the issue.

    Shore ships and private planes could probably run on batteries, but I don't see much way around ocean-going ships and large or fast aircraft needing transportable fuels.

    However, for cars and trucks, we have an out: MagLev trains have no engine and carry no fuel; the electric power is provided by the track. Most cargo locomotives are actually electric; they use diesel oil to run an on-board generator. We could modify existing rail and locomotives, adding a "third rail" that provides electric power to the locomotive.

    That has impact on the batteries needed for cars and trucks. An extensive electric rail network would reduce the range requirements for cars and trucks, because they could park on a train and ride the railway for long distance travel. Thus their actual driving would be local, not cross country, with perhaps a 100 mile range between charges. Ultimately that would be more energy efficient anyway; at long distance trains are about 10x more energy efficient than cargo trucks.

    The other alternative is to expand public transportation, or rent a vehicle instead of bringing one. Yet another alternative is future tech; the above is predicated on batteries we currently have; but Tesla and others are pouring money into battery research; Tesla in particular is reportedly aiming to eliminate resource bottlenecks like the use of minerals in short world supply.

    I think, without affecting the total amount of travel or total tonnage of people and things transported, there would be a lot of realignment and re-purposing of the infrastructure, but it doesn't have to be done all at once and need not require a lifetime.

    Now if for some reason I don't know about, it turns out we really need a fossil fuel to power a jet fighter or an intercontinental flight, our goal is to reduce greenhouse emissions to medieval levels, not necessarily precisely zero.

  106. @Dr Castaldo, "our goal is to reduce greenhouse emissions to medieval levels, not necessarily precisely zero."
    Can you please elaborate about why medieval level was or would be good? Medieval period was followed by what is now called "the little ice age". Would that be good for anybody (humans, animals, ...)if it happens again?
    It is really disturbing that people would care less if mining for minerals for batteries, and whatever is required to produce the electricity that we would need to replace "fossil fuels" is more polluting, as long as it is not "greenhouse gazes" (and it is in somebody else's backyard).

  107. Nothing specific about medieval levels, just they are much lower than today. The Little Ice Age had to do with solar variability, not with atmospheric effects (and, no, solar variability is not the cause of the current global warming).

  108. @Castaldo: Please forgive me for being blunt, but your long post in which you just go on and on about technology makes me so tired. The techno-fetichistic optimism which seems to underpin it makes me so sad, because I do not one second believe it is going to rescue us from ourselves.

  109. @Unknown; Phillip has it right; human activity did not cause the little ice age. As for the rest, I was talking about potential technological solutions that I think are relatively low on the level of innovation or invention required. But while these ideas seem to me pretty obvious, executable and scalable, world-wide (or even country-wide) adoption is likely intractable due to politics and the overwhelming power of moneyed players profiting from the current regimes.

    Mining can be done with electricity produced by solar power; it does not have to be polluting. As for NIMBY, pretty much everybody (even on the individual level!) exploits the resources they have in excess, selling them to others that lack them. This process does not demand any level of human exploitation. For those that have no resources, I'm a fan of social democracy and taking care of each other, and I wouldn't mind high taxation if the proceeds were spent responsibly and transparently on the public welfare.

  110. Well, I never said that human activity caused the little ice age, in fact, I don't see how we can do that. If we could, we can use it to reverse global warming, no?

  111. @John Fredsted: I'm not sure why you think I am optimistic; my position is and has been that humanity will never get together and cooperate in sufficient numbers to save themselves from global warming. I believe no conservation efforts (that most of humanity would tolerate) will ever suffice, at least not until it is far too late and our fate is baked.

    Therefore, in my mind, the one and only thing capable of saving us is a technological solution, because that might be invented by a team of scientists and engineers without needing any permissions or political commitment or anything else, for a price tag on the order of millions.

    Call it a techno-fetish if you want, I call it the basic logic of human nature and for me the one and only hope left. I believe if the problem is solved, it will be a tech solution devised by a team. Perhaps even a team of hundreds. The LHC itself proves that can work and get huge technological machines completed and working.

  112. Let me add my concern to that of Unknown regarding the rather casual invocation of "the ignorant masses" in this discussion. The concept, as deployed here, is a myopic and class-based display - of ignorance. Such prejudicial posturing has no place in a serious discussion and is, in fact, self-denigrating.

  113. @Unknown True enough. My point in specifying the middle-ages was only to cite a definitely pre-industrial climate (not a level of technology, education or culture) as a recent suitable goal with some non-zero greenhouse gases being produced by ranching, farming and fuel consumption. I was not suggesting we travel back in time to the 1500's and relive climate history.

  114. This is off topic, but did anyone else here have difficulty in accessing all parts of Backreaction today? This morning (US, EST) on my home computer Sabine's latest post wouldn't completely load, the text was OK, just no images. Earlier images from other posts loaded. But, perplexingly, I couldn't access the comment sections of any posts, the latest, as well as all earlier posts. I'm on my notebook computer at a coffee shop and everything works fine here.

    Several other sites wouldn't load as well on my home computer, like Drudgereport. It's probably something just with my home computer.

  115. Unknown wrote: I never said that human activity caused the little ice age.

    True, but you clearly implied a direct connection between Medieval levels of greenhouse gasses and the Little Ice Age. Phillip corrected your error. You might consider thanking him. Since you offer strong opinions on climate change, you ought to get your facts straight, no?

  116. Bud wrote: Let me add my concern to that of Unknown regarding the rather casual invocation of "the ignorant masses" in this discussion.

    Here is the definition of ignorance: lacking knowledge or information. In our politically correct time, some people don't want to acknowledge that many people lack knowledge or information. The funny thing about these noble people is that if I say that people lack knowledge or information, they're fine with that. But if I say people are ignorant, they're "concerned."

    Yes, ignorant *can* mean "lacking intelligence." But that isn't the most common meaning for the word, and that's not what I mean when I use the word.

    Since ignorance is a significant factor for many of the serious problems in the world, I think it belongs in any "serious discussion" about the serious problems in the world. You may prefer to use another word, but it's going to mean the same thing. If you think the word is "denigrating," take it up with the people who write dictionaries and usage manuals and ask them to label it as such. In the meantime, your opinion about the word doesn't supersede the dictionaries. It's a perfectly good word.

  117. Steven,

    Thank you for clarifying the meaning of ignorant. I was not objecting, however, to your use of that term, but rather to your gratuitous characterization of "the ignorant masses". That usage is prejudicial, class-based and ignorant, in and of itself. I hope my meaning is clearer this time.

  118. The description of Sabine's accident on a freeway in Germany, reminded me of a similar collision I had on Rte 17 in northern New Jersey in 1976. I was heading home to a rented house in Mahwah, NJ, when out of a line of trees on the left a full size sedan lumbered slowly across the highway at almost a right angle to the flow of traffic. I was in the middle lane, and coming down a moderately steep grade on a wet, concrete roadway.

    I knew from experience that braking too hard at 60 MPH, in such conditions, would cause me to skid out of control. The lumbering sedan, as bad luck would have it, was just coming to a stop, right in the middle lane where I was traveling on the 3 lane roadway. I modulated my braking just enough to avoid skidding. I wanted to pass to either side, but high speed traffic blocked that option. At the last second I finally stopped, just as the rear part of the sedan lurched upward and then crunched down on my VW beetle pushing in the front right fender and part of the trunk. Luckily, no other vehicle slammed into our conjoined vehicles, and neither of us suffered any injuries.

  119. Regarding the "ignorant masses," a favorite Carl Sagan quote goes like this:

    "We’ve arranged a global civilization in which the most crucial elements — transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting, profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces." (The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, 1995)

    Ignorance is not knowing something, and we're all ignorant of far more than we can ever know, but some are more ignorant then they could be through their own choices. They lack curiosity to know more, to question what is "given."

    We could get away with that, being locally, "emotionally" smart and globally, technically, scientifically ignorant, when civilization wasn't so advanced and fast-paced. Modern life requires paying more attention. (And knowledge is power.)

    This is no "casual invocation" but studied and informed by experience and culture. There is nothing "myopic" about it; it's a view held by many observers. The myopia may lie in refusing to see the problem, in assuming "everything is okay."

  120. Bud wrote: I hope my meaning is clearer this time.

    Okay, so you don't object to the word ignorant, but you do object to the term ignorant masses. That doesn't make it clearer; it just moves the cheese a little. Let's consider four concrete examples:

    An article I read recently reported that about 40% of Americans believe that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. That's over 100 million people.

    This is an ignorant belief, and 100 million people is a mass of people. How is it prejudicial or gratuitous to point out this is mass ignorance?

    The remedy for mass ignorance is mass education. Indeed, that's the very purpose of mass public education.

    Which leads me to my second concrete example. In the US, there have been serious attempts to add Creationist dogma to the science curriculum in public schools. Creationists want to teach ignorance to masses of children. Creationists aren't satisfied with only 40% of Americans being ignorant; they want 100% of Americans to be ignorant.

    Third example: There are countless examples from history of how mass ignorance has caused serious harm. People believed that diseases were caused by witches or demons, or were punishments from angry gods. These ignorant beliefs resulted in all sorts of harmful actions. Even in the 21st century, wars have been waged because of mass ignorance. Can anyone show that mass ignorance wasn't a factor for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?

    Fourth example: There are plenty of autocrats who keep the populace ignorant, to make it easier to control, manipulate and exploit them. We can refer to the mass ignorance of these people and empathize with them. Your denial of the mass ignorance of these suffering people is prejudicial. You are causing harm if you deny that they are being kept ignorant on a mass scale.

    Mass ignorance is real and it causes real problems. That's why it's useful to have a term like mass ignorance. If some people use the term as an insult, don't blame the term. There are lots of useful words that describe unpleasant things, that can also be used as insults.

    Bud wrote: your gratuitous characterization of "the ignorant masses"

    It seems to me that you have a misguided sense of political correctness. I don't doubt that your intentions are good.

    Out of curiosity, I'd like to know what politically correct term you prefer to use that means the same thing as mass ignorance. You're not denying that there is such a thing as mass ignorance, right? I've offered some concrete examples of it.

  121. Hope it's OK to mention another detail of my scary accident in New Jersey, that I'd almost forgotten. I had just come to a stop and quickly glanced in the rear view mirror to ascertain if any traffic was coming in my lane. To my horror, a giant tanker truck had crested the hill and was barreling down the center lane right towards us. Luckily, unlike in Sabine's case, being rear ended by a BMW, the trucker managed to maneuver and pass us on the right side. Had he not been able to accomplish that it would certainly have been lights out for both myself, and the 20 year old girl driving the sedan.

  122. The link you posted distilled to one point: There is money to be made from selling fossil fuels. That fact alone drives the politics.

    Each of us who give the fossil fuel providers money are guilty of the consequences of using fossil fuels, myself included.

    We've got lots of excuses, the worst being "we have no choice". Of course, we have a choice. Don't use it.

    But then we'd be uncomfortable, wouldn't we?

    I'm not "holier than thou", I'm just as guilty. Just pointing out the obvious.

  123. Steven Mason and Chris Sonnack,

    As Chris points out, ignorance is a part of the human condition. You are ignorant of far more things than you are knowledgeable about - as am I and every other human being. The problem with "the ignorant masses" construct is that it's intellectually lazy and analytically sloppy. It casts a wide net of aspersion without saying anything really meaningful.

    This has nothing to do with political correctness. Invoking "the ignorance of the masses", when the term "the masses" has historically been applied to the lower classes, and ascribing to that rather arbitrary category the rather broad characteristic of ignorance, is simply nonsensical.

    All the specific examples you both give in defense of that remark, of specific people who are ignorant of specific facts, underscores the point. To be ignorant of a certain subject, is not the same as being generally ignorant. If you meant something other than what you actually said, then you misspoke, which is understandable, but you should be willing to admit it, rather than attempt to justify it by pretending you said something else. If you didn't say what you meant, that's your fault.

    Lastly, if you characterize as ignorant, people whose views differ from your own, you have almost certainly precluded any possibility of convincing them of the validity of your own arguments, no matter how sound they might be.

  124. Liralen wrote: Of course, we have a choice.

    Individual choices are fine as far as they go, but this is a situation that requires choices at the level of entire nations. Until that happens, people are more or less stuck with limited options.

  125. Dear Dr. I LOVE YOUR site, and I so much appreciate your very keen take on this obsession with naturalism (aka materialism to me), to basically explain away fine tuning, etc. I also appreciate the balanced way you handle the very serious issue in what I think is much more than just physics...

    Perhaps you are right, but history should tell us something more as well. We have not smoothly moved from one stage in our "evolution" (I doubt we have really learned all that much to call it Evolution - more like adding comfort but loosing our spirits). No, we did not move smoothly through time to this supposed pinnacle, we lost giant and 3000K old civilizations in a blink of an eye, we have had wars since the dawn of time, some so large they reset us or even propelled us forward.

    All out nuclear war? Possible and probably the only thing that can bring this to an abrupt end, at least for another 1000 years (another major glaciation event could probably due equal damage and is not in our control. I would challenge you also on your population numbers - history again told us we should already be dead decades ago by the "population explosion that never happened". Instead the trend has been sharply downward on population, and it is not an overabundance of people, it is an overcrowding issue - 7.5 Billion could fit shoulder to shoulder in a decent sized island. Water is unending in supply, the slight warming since the 70's ice age scare and carbon cycles have lead to an overabundance of crops, we waste almost as much as we consume, and their is room for twice the population if we start using technology wisely, and most countries the birth rate is negative, except in poor, energy starved populations and in Muslim migration.

    If we are forced too, we will adapt and the price may indeed be high, but I don't think it will be any worse than we have seen, which can be severe, but why would we expect to not repeat history?? Maybe because every few thousand years we think we have reached some "Higher level"?. I would say man has done an incredible job of keeping up considering Man's fallen nature.

    see and many other articles and facts.. like and even INDIA

    For Global warming see - look at his top sections and look at how past global temp graphs have been steadily altered over time, see

  126. One of the many breezes that filled our current president's political sails was long-held resentment against the "good student," -- all the little slights and indignities of being ordinary while some others are highly favored and nurtured. Hillary's real goal was to be the ultimate good student. I empathize with those folks and I think you should too. It's the best footing to move forward.

  127. bitor wrote: 7.5 Billion could fit shoulder to shoulder in a decent sized island

    That is an oft-used argument that is completely irrelevant. It's been debunked. What matters is the resources we use and the impact we make on our planet.

    You could fit 100 billion people in the state of Connecticut, and they wouldn't even have to be shoulder to shoulder. Obviously our planet can't sustain that many people no matter how "wisely" we use our technology.

    bitor wrote: their is room for twice the population

    Of course there's "room" for 15 billion. There's room for 100 billion. Even with high-tech farming techniques, we're straining resources to feed our current population. Even if we somehow got twice as efficient, with twice the population we'd still be straining resources. Keep in mind that if all 7.5 (or 15) billion people enjoyed the same standard of living as the average middle-class American, global resources would be further strained.

  128. Mason is correct in the points he makes. Also think about the growing scarcity of unpolluted fresh water, declining pollinators, and waste sinks that can't process humanity's current load of externalities. I wonder what the air quality would be for a Connecticut with a 7.6 billion population...

  129. Kurtz wrote: Mason is correct in the points he makes.

    Whenever I see someone say that Earth could easily accommodate 15 billion or more people, as long as we use technology "wisely," I always ask them to recommend a good book that explains how that can work.

    I've read some of Julian Simon's books, but he doesn't make a scientific case. He's an economist with a background in business and psychology. Basically, Simon says that humans are clever and adaptable, and history shows us that we always find a way. I'm looking for a book that makes a scientific case.

  130. Here is Freeman Dyson talking about climate change.

  131. David Bailey wrote: Here is Freeman Dyson talking about climate change.

    David, it would be helpful if you just gave us the point you want us to get. For example, you could say, "Freeman Dyson says we shouldn't be worried about climate change, and I agree with him."

    All of us could literally post hundreds of links to hundreds of videos "talking about climate change." I could respond to your video with another video, ad infinitum and ad nauseam.

    If any of us want to watch videos about climate change, we can find them. There are books, too. By the way, I'm familiar with Dyson's views on climate change. So I know the point you're trying to make, and you're using argument from authority to support your point. It's Freeman Dyson, after all. :-)

    There's a good article on Dyson's views of climate change in The Atlantic titled The Danger of Cosmic Genius.

  132. There is a real problem with people who have made real contributions a) to another discipline b) more than half a century ago who a) think that their opinion on a topic they have no idea about is worth something and b) think that other people will think that it is worth something. The real problem is the other people who think that someone's opinion counts for something even with no expertise in the area, and perhaps a reputation built long ago. (This is also the basis of much advertising. Why should, say, a racecar driver know something about cooking?)

  133. Phillip wrote: Why should, say, a racecar driver know something about cooking?

    My current pet peeve, which is a silly indulgence, is Alex Trebek doing commercials for life insurance. He's using his reputation for integrity and intelligence to shill for a lousy life insurance policy.

    Trebek tells us, with his most dulcet tones and most sincere and earnest facial expressions, that the policy costs *only* $10 a month and it covers funeral expenses that normally exceed $8,000. What Trebek *doesn't* tell us is that the benefit amount is only $400.

    A racecar driver *might* know something about cooking and Trebek *might* know something about insurance, but celebrity endorsements (shilling) of products is common marketing practice, and it bothers me that so many people fall for it.

    We could tie this in to Sabine's complaint about the marketing video for the new collider, but we've already kicked that around enough.

    I wonder if David will read the article about Dyson and talk to me about it, or respond to any of your points. If one has a case to make, I think one should make it - for the intellectual exercise, if nothing else.

  134. @Steve Mason - Tragedy of the Commons. See, for example,

    What are your ideas on how to defeat it?

  135. Liralen wrote: What are your ideas on how to defeat it? {Tragedy of the Commons]

    If you know enough to ask that question, then you already know what economists have offered as solutions. Do you have something specific in mind that you'd like to ask my opinion about? Without something specific, I could literally talk for days about it, which ironically enough would be an example of Tragedy of the Commons right here in this blog. :-)

    In earlier comments you mentioned population and fossil fuels. If that's what you're getting at with your question, then I'll tell you that you're asking about important issues. I'll tell you that I'm frustrated that our best scientists, economists and politicians are not having an intelligent discussion about it and not writing collaborative papers or books about it.

    This is what I'll do: I've been looking for good books on this topic, and I found one that looks somewhat promising: Storms of my Grandchildren by James Hansen.

    There's a potential problem with the book. Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said "I view Jim Hansen as heroic as a scientist, but I wish he would stick to what he really knows. Because I don't think he has a realistic idea of what is politically possible."

    Now, this could mean that Hansen knows the science and knows what we *need* to do, but isn't realistic about the prospects of doing what we need to do. But that raises the obvious question for Claussen: If we can't do what we need to do, where does that leave us? What will the politically possible options accomplish, and why, oh why are we still not talking about them?

  136. @Steven Mason
    I think we will do some awful things politically, like electing Trump.
    Energy is the key, of course, as it is with respect to understanding everything from biology to physics. Energy is an important resource and an inimical waste, at least the ones easiest to use from a technological perspective, but as our tech improves, we can improve our waste elimination capabilities.

    Methane is a primary component of natural gas, but is routinely flared from our wastes, landfills, because the economics do not support building transmission lines to landfills, and but yet has 20 x the greenhouse gas effect of CO2.

    However, if the energy situation worsens, that will make it more economical to build transmission lines to landfills.

    We are also bathed in energy every day, but we’re not really good YET at capturing it efficiently, and more importantly, storing it. YET.

    Energy storage is the key to our survival, and is consistent with our evolutionary success.

    We are hoarders. It’s always been the key to our survival. And the source of our greatest evils.

    The dragon sitting contentedly on its hoard of gold was created in our own image. As is Gehenna, our landfills.

    So we will survive as a species.

    What we do to each other to insure our own survival is another matter.

    That’s the elephant in the room.

    Might makes right. I’ve always hated that phrase, but it’s hard to escape.


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