March 24, 2006

Are the ocean basins half full or half empty?

The scale on the figure above goes from -1.8 C (violet) to 31.7 (red). 26.5 C is orangish-yellow.

An old pal asked me if I knew of a good website where you can find information about sea surface temperatures. You bet I do. You need look no farther than the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, here, and the NASA earth observatory, here.

Arthur C. Clarke said that we are wrong to call our planet earth-- a far more appropriate name would be ocean, since the oceans cover over 2/3 of the surface. The oceans are a great place to go looking for climate change.

First thing to note is that sea surface temperatures greater than 26.5 C (79.7 F) to a depth of 50 m support hurricanes.

Second thing to note is that sea level has increased over 7 " in the last century. This is not because of melting ice, but it is related to climate change. When water gets warmer it expands, and the sea level rise is simply a measure of an increase in the temperature of the world's ocean. 'The best is yet to come': when the Greenland glacier melts, sea levels will rise 6 m. 10 years ago the Greenland glacier was loosing 50 cubic kilometers of ice a year-- last year this had increased to 150 cubic kilometers.

There is enough water on Antarctica to raise the world's oceans by 60 m. Time to start building the ark of your dreams??


This morning I gave the last lecture in my course on the physics of molecules. I'm always sad to part with a class after getting to know the students, but you can't let on you know. When it was over, I simply looked them in the collective eye and said, 'thank you.' And they started clapping! I didn't know what to think. They must have been glad to finally be rid of me.
Then on the way home I bought 16 roses, one for each year of our marriage. Some of them of course had more thorns than others, but a rose by any other name still smells as sweet.

March 20, 2006

Running around

Some thoughts running around in my head. It seems both profound and banal that society and history are driven by biology.

March 17, 2006

Bobbing deadheads

Today in class I was talking about how molecules absorb light. I made an analogy to a deadhead in a lake. One end of the log is heavy and one end is light. The log stands upright, and when waves come by the deadhead starts to bob up and down, first a little and with time, more and more. Molecules can act the same way-- when a light wave goes by it causes the electrons to bob up and down. The point though that can cause some confusion is that the energy states of the molecule are quantized while those of the log are not.

When I introduced this analogy I said that this deadhead had nothing to do with Jerry Garcia. The students just looked at me. I saw that I needed to explain that a deadhead was someone who followed The Grateful Dead around. Blank stares. You know, The Grateful Dead!? I asked. Only two students out of a class of 50 knew who they were. Am I getting old or am I just teaching on the wrong continent?

March 12, 2006

Political beasts

One of life's little passtimes as a stranger in a strange land is being a political spectator. Like a birdwatcher, I can check off some of the rarest species. (A fun example-- the conservative governing party of Denmark is called 'The Left'-- they are conservative old-style liberals, from before Reagan redefined the word). Another example, there are real live communists running around in Sweden-- they are even part of the coalition government that is in power. I hesitate to call them red-blooded communists because they are about the palest people you might ever encounter-- pale like the grey November sky over Erich Honecker's East Germany-- but in a political sense, yes, you could call them red-blooded communists. The leader of the party was put into the spotlight recently for his anti-democratic leanings and finally he said that he had stopped calling himself a communist, although he had never stopped believing in the ideas behind the movement. ! Put that in your pipe.
But an even rarer beast has just raised its head: syndicalism. Syndicalism made a splash as an anarchistic labor movement before the first world war. Real live snorting syndicalists are loose in the streets of Lund, waving red and black banners, and organizing a boycott of one of the very best bakeries/coffee shops in town. In the paper today they wrote that an older man walked past the demonstration and couldn't hold back his disgust. He stood in front of the activists and shouted, 'Why don't all you young people get jobs, then you won't have time to demonstrate!' to which one of the protesters replied, 'But it's Saturday!'

March 11, 2006

I've been sitting on my perch

I have been having fun with Swedish and Danish lately-- somehow I have reached a new level where I understand more of the little things, and am able to prattle on seemingly for hours, at ease, expressing whatever thoughts happen to be passing through my cranium. A lot of these languages can't be learned in books. A few examples. You could ask somebody at work what they have been up to, and they could say, I've just been sitting on my perch, which in Danish is said, I've just been sitting on my stick. Or they could say, I've been running around like a gunshot turd. Danish is big on both scatological and farm humor. In Swedish when you say goodbye you could say 'have it good!', or even more quickly, 'have it!'. In the Swedish papers they use the abbreviations A:son and G:son for Axelsson and Gustafsson. The names are so common, so everyone knows. But how do they know A:son doesn't stand for Andersson? The answer is that they just do. The mysteries of language never cease.

March 10, 2006

Ring of Fire

One time Kate told me that when she heard the Johnny Cash song Ring of Fire she thought it was about childbirth. It turns out she's not the only one; Defective Yeti has a blog that not only describes this link but shows how the Lord of the Rings is an allegory for pregnancy:

But only one person is the appointed bearer. And that poor sap has to carry the burden the entire way, a burden that just gets heavier and heavier as the weeks wear on. The bearer gets increasingly tired and cranky as they approach their destination -- and who can blame them? Their good-for-nothing companion doesn't do anything useful, except flit about and say things like "jeeze, I wish I could carry the burden for a while!" and occasionally fight off an enormous spider and/or fetch chocolate ice cream.

But as bad as the journey is, it's the ending that truly sucks: the agony of carrying the burden is nothing compared to letting it go. The bearer gets all, like, "I can't do it, it's impossible!" and the companion stands around heming and hawing and lamely asserting "sure you can!" And then, out of nowhere, a creepy-looking bald-headed creature comes onto the scene.

The first version of Ring of Fire that I heard was by Eric Burden and the Animals, from about 1971. Distorted, psychadelic. I was a kid, so I thought it was not only weird but also something I really needed to understand. It was my big brother's record and I played it again and again. I was in my 20s when I heard the straight Cash version with the mariachi horns, and listened to the words, about June's forbidden love for Johnny:

Love is a burning thing
and it makes a firery ring
bound by wild desire
I fell in to a ring of fire...

I fell in to a burning ring of fire
I went down, down, down
and the flames went higher.
And it burns, burns, burns
the ring of fire
the ring of fire.

The taste of love is sweet
when hearts like our's meet
I fell for you like a child
oh, but the fire went wild..

March 09, 2006

Ozone checkup

In the newsroom the ozone layer has been upstaged by climate change. But how is it going for our global shield against damaging ultraviolet radiation? Well, as the first figure shows, the atmospheric concentration of CFC gases is decreasing. Their production has essentially stopped, but it will take a while to wash the compounds out of the atmosphere because they are strong molecules. The atmospheric concentrations of the CFC replacements, including HCFCs and HFCs, is increasing. The CFC replacements also damage the ozone layer, and they are greenhouse gases, but much much less so than for the compounds they replace. The second graph shows the current and future status of the mid-latitude ozone layer-- that is, the amount of ozone over our heads. It should be back to its old self by mid-century, if nothing else happens.
In one way this is a global success story, since the governments of the world saw the problem and did something about it. The discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole sped the process greatly, but the real concern has always been the mid-latitude ozone over our heads. Its an old lesson really, the shit needs to hit the fan before people pay attention. Will there be a global warming wake-up call?

March 06, 2006


Physics for the third world. The range of wireless networks can be extended dramatically using a tin can antenna, or 'cantenna'. Read more here.

March 04, 2006

Hurricane Gudrun

This photo won the photo of the year prize in our local newspaper, Sydsvenskan. It was taken by a hobby pilot and shows an area of the forest in Smaland that was damaged by hurricane Gudrun last winter. Vehicles left a pattern as they removed the trees that had blown over.

March 02, 2006

What's not to love about Zippy the Pinhead?

Why do I love Zippy so? What's not to love? Part of the explanation can be found below, paraphrased from Wikipedia.

Zippy is distinctive not so much for his skull shape, or for any identifiable form of brain damage, but for his enthusiasm for philosophical non sequiturs, verbal free association, and the pursuit of pop culture ephemera. His wholehearted devotion to random artifacts satirizes the excesses of consumerism.

Zippy's unpredictable behavior sometimes causes severe difficulty for others, but never for himself. Zippy first said, "Are we having fun yet?" in 1979. It became a catch phrase, and appears in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. Zippy always wears a yellow muumuu with large red spots, and clown shoes.

He is married to a nearly identical pinhead named Zerbina, and has two children, Fuel-Rod and Meltdown. He has two close friends: Claude Funston, a hapless working man, and Griffy, a stand-in for Bill Griffith who often appears in the strip to complain about various aspects of modern life. A humanoid toad, Mr. Toad (less commonly Mr. The Toad), appears occasionally, embodying blind greed and selfishness.

Many people don't get Zippy. I refer them to this handy guide by the cartoonist Bill Griffith.

March 01, 2006


During my trip to Minnesota I went to church in the church I grew up in. As it happened my scoutmaster's granddaughter was being baptised-- a fine coincidence, a chance to see old friends and baptism has always been my favorite sacrament. It is wonderful to welcome a new soul into the world and it is a reaffirmation of faith for those present. I like the idea that the community agrees to help raise the child.

The other side of life was also present during my visit in an unexpected way. I went to see The Music Man at The Little Theater in Owatonna; my sister had a role as an Iowan. The play was directed by Sarah Foreman, who taught an English class that I took in High School called Utopia. We went backstage after the show to talk with her-- she may be the only teacher that me and all of my siblings had. As she put it, I had 'talked myself out of an A' in her course.

The concept of the class was to examine utopia in literature. We started with an ideal society described by an ancient Greek author, and finished with modern works like Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984. She said that she would give an A to anyone who could figure out a way to bring down the government in that book. I took the bait, together with Brad Collette and Joe Mamer. We read and reread the book, and filled page after page with our notes. Finally our day in court came and I presented our case, which relied on a single citizen to start the revolt in a public place, which would then spread quickly before the government could react. We needed a second day of class to present the arguments. We had a 15-point chain of logic that proved why our revolution would succeed, and I refused to present the next point until the current point had been accepted; a command decision. Of course it was a setup since she herself was the judge of whether our plan had succeeded, and she declared that she wanted to hear the whole case through before she would decide whether we had succeeded or not. We couldn't convince her that everyone would follow the lone revolutionary announcing his presence via loudspaker at a sporting event. In hindsight I believe that we should have focused on the structural weaknesses of a command economy.

Anyway, what I remember is that she got me to study a book like I had never done before, and in a subject (English) that I was not very interested in. In English class I could never really figure out what it was they expected me to do-- there were no right answers like in math and science. She was a great teacher and her classroom was a dynamic space. There was a bulliten board at the back of the room dedicated to free expression. Everyone was welcome to write-- my favorites were quotations from Zippy the Pinhead and Jim Morrison. One day after class she looked me in the eye and said, 'You know your father has helped a lot of people.' I said, 'I know.'

I first met her when I was in a production of Annie Get Your Gun (also at The Little Theater). I was in sixth grade and played an indian. Got to walk on stage in front of complete strangers wearing nothing but a loincloth, moccasins and a bone necklace. Her advice to me was that I should stop looking all around the theater, and instead just stare straight ahead like the other indians were doing. At the cast party they had a real live bartender.

Sarah Foreman got meningitis and went into the hospital, and passed away just a few days ago. She was definitly one of the good ones. May you rest in peace.

14th c. biosphere-climate interaction?

Just ran across an interesting theory. The Black Death of the 14th century is thought to have killed over a third of Europe's population. Trees growing on the abandoned farmland would have removed large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Less greenhouse gas would have lead to cooling of the planet. Indeed, cooling was seen in the little ice age, a 300 year period of below-average temperatures. Could it be true? Perhaps, according to this article. One question I have though is that while the temperature record does support the little ice age, ice core records of gas concentrations do not show a decline in CO2 in the 15th century. There are other theories as to the origin of the little ice age. One links it to changes in ocean circulation. Another links it to the sun, since the timing of the little ice age corresponds to the Maunder Minimum, a period of about 70 years during which there were no sunspots. There is an interesting link between climate and Scandinavian civilization. The heyday of the vikings corresponds to the Medieval Warm Period, with cooler temperatures bringing the end of the viking era (and hard times for viking colonies on e.g. Iceland).

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