Archive for the ‘research’ Category

This article is from the humor archives. Think outside the box.

The following concerns a question in a physics degree exam at the University of Copenhagen:

“Describe how to determine the height of a skyscraper with a barometer.”

One student replied:

“You tie a long piece of string to the neck of the barometer, then lower the barometer from the roof of the skyscraper to the ground. The length of the string plus the length of the barometer will equal the height of the building.”

This highly original answer so incensed the examiner that the student was failed immediately. He appealed on the grounds that his answer was indisputably correct, and the university appointed an independent arbiter to decide the case. The arbiter judged that the answer was indeed correct, but did not display any noticeable knowledge of physics. To resolve the problem it was decided to call the student in and allow him six minutes in which to provide a verbal answer which showed at least a minimal familiarity with the basic principles of physics. For five minutes the student sat in silence, forehead creased in thought. The arbiter reminded him that time was running out, to which the student replied that he had several extremely relevant answers, but couldn’t make up his mind which to use. On being advised to hurry up the student replied as follows:

“Firstly, you could take the barometer up to the roof of the skyscraper, drop it over the edge, and measure the time it takes to reach the ground. The height of the building can then be worked out from the formula H = 0.5g x t squared. But bad luck on the barometer.

“Or if the sun is shining you could measure the height of the barometer, then set it on end and measure the length of its shadow. Then you measure the length of the skyscraper’s shadow, and thereafter it is a simple matter of proportional arithmetic to work uut the height of the skyscraper.

“But if you wanted to be highly scientific about it, you could tie a short piece of string to the barometer and swing it like a pendulum, first at ground level and then on the roof of the skyscraper. The height is worked out by the difference in the gravitational restoring force T = 2 pi sqrroot (l/g).

“Or if the skyscraper has an outside emergency staircase, it would be easier to walk up it and mark off the height of the skyscraper in barometer lengths, then add them up.

“If you merely wanted to be boring and orthodox about it, of course, you could use the barometer to measure the air pressure on the roof of the skyscraper and on the ground, and convert the difference in millibars into feet to give the height of the building.

But since we are constantly being exhorted to exercise independence of mind and apply scientific methods, undoubtedly the best way would be to knock on the janitor’s door and say to him ‘If you would like a nice new barometer, I will give you this one if you tell me the height of this skyscraper’.”

The student was Nils Bohr, the only Dane to win the Nobel prize for Physics.


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This is a diatribe in three chapters. It was inspired by a report this evening on CBC’s As It Happens, and is a prelude to the IPCC press conference tomorrow on the Fourth Assessment Report on the current and future state of the climate. The IPCC is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is sponsored by the UN and the WMO (World Meteorological Organisation), and is the main body that determines the world consensus on the scientific, social, and economic impacts and implications on climate change.


The word consensus is very important here. People have often been disappointed by the weakness of previous statements, especially regarding the scientific consensus on what the climate is doing. Because it is a consensus everyone has to agree on the exact wording, so even if 95% of the scientists in the  working group (Working Group 1) supports a definite stand, the 5% or less that dissent can add the words “may”, “probably” , etc. This allows government and industrial leaders to cast doubt on the overwhelming preponderance of evidence supporting global climate change due to anthropomorphic carbon dioxide emissions, and annoys and distresses most climate researchers to no end.  It also sends most organisations concerned with climate change up the wall, for some reason.

As It Happens interviewed a member of the IPCC who discussed a related report published in Science today (Science is one of the main journals on cutting edge research in the sciences, along with Nature).  It looks at the predictions from the last IPCC assessment report in 2001, and finds that sea level rise may be greater than the previous model predictions indicated.This led me to check out the publications of the lead author, Stefan Rahmstorf, a prominent and respected oceanographer and climate change researcher.

Facts versus Fiction 

On his web page were some interesting articles.

  • The first is a very nice fact sheet summarising the main findings of climate change research, which summarises the scientific predictions, the social, economic, and ecological impacts, and addresses an approach to reducing and coping with the problem.
  • Second is RealClimate, a well-respected  blog written by climate change scientists.
  • The Climate Skeptics looks at the arguments and approaches taken by climate changes skeptics, and gives advice on how to come to your own conclusion,
  • and finally, there is a review of a “popular” movie on climate change.

Facts within Fiction

In the last few years I’ve seen two movies that relate to climate change. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is possibly the best discussion of the science and implications that I’ve seen, and the science is very close to being impeccable, with the problems being extremely minor. As I’ve said before, it is a must-see.

The seconds movie is one that I despised so much that I went to see it again, so as to find all the errors and pitfalls. As a person who has been around climate change science, and who did a Master’s Degree in climate change modelling, it was particularly annoying that people with little real knowledge besides what they see in the news (almost zip) and popular science magazines (often not much better) enjoyed it as an action adventure, and totally missed much of the fantasy in this near-future SF&F movie.

However, Rahmstorf made some very relevant comments regarding some positive elements of the movie that I missed in the avalanche of small to major bloopers. Here are a few of the more insightful and cogent remarks from his comments.

  • Early in the movie the protagonist gives a talk on the shut-down of the North-Atlantic Current (the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Drift). He argues that the shut-downs could occur in a few hundred years, a few thousand, or not at all. Rahnstorf gave the same talk with the same diagram in real life.
  • The politics and skepticism portrayed in the movie also rang true.
  • Some of the dialog and the research work areas also rang true.
  • Relevant and important questions were raised.

Rahmstorf believes that most of the audience would understand the main fantastic elements of the movie, and would understand and be intrigued by the implications of rapid climate change (but less rapid than what would fit into a feature-length movie). If you grit your teeth and ignore the sciencific errors, it isn’t that bad, and its heart is in the right place.

Addendum and Example: At the beginning of the movie is a sequence where an Antarctic Ice shelf splits  from the mainland, and an actor has a leg on either side of the split. Also, the split occurs in about 5 minutes. Now if you check out the story of the Larsen B Ice Shelf, you’ll see the truth behind the fantasy. There are several other cases in the movie (Jack Frost chasing people around to show the cold air isn’t one of them, however.)


The press conference tomorrow will hopefully have the strongest statment about climate change to date, and might be very useful to hear. Make up your own minds, but looks at the preponderence of evidence first.

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WordPress’s online blog hosting service just released some of their statistics. I’ve just been browsing through them, and have noticed one or two things.

  • For their daily signups, there seems to be a strong weekly cycle. The minima seem to occur Friday or Saturday; I guess it is a TGIF(S) phenomena? It’s only reasonable that people would be away from their tin gods more on the weekends. Also, it reminds me of the Hawaii observations of carbon dioxide increase, but on a much shorter timescale.
  • For posting activity, the same pattern occurs, but there is more “CO_2 increase” going on, and it actually looks even more like the Mauna Loa observations.

For those unfamiliar with the Mauna Loa observations, you’ll note a yearly oscillation within the general upward trend. Some people call it Gaia breathing, or the Earth breathing. Basically, there is a significant difference in landmass between the northern and southern hemispheres, and the plant life on land (and the microbes in the soil) is much less in the southern hemisphere. Also, land biota dominate over oceanic species in their influence on oxygen/carbon dioxide variations in the atmosphere. So in a northern winter there is less net carbon dioxide uptake by plant life in the winter; in the summer the plants get more sunlight, the deciduous trees have their leaves out, and mid to high latitude plant life has its spring bloom, so the uptake of carbon dioxide is much larger.

Here is an animation of the planet breathing from the NASA Ames Research Centre. It is part of a study of the role of microbes in the soil on the greenhouse gas budget, but it does show the net transfer of carbon dioxide between the surface and the atmosphere as “seen” from space.

So go the dangers of free association, pattern recognition, and Google.

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As It Happens, I was listening to same this evening and heard a cool article. It was about research done at the University of Leicester by Adrian North, on the relationship between people’s lifestyles relative to their musical tastes (or lack thereof). He found some clear correlations, and while many were obvious, others were surprising.

For example, people who really like Opera tend to be much more suicidal and prone to traffic accidents than people who like Pop and Country music; he posits that this may be related to the dark and violent subject matter in much of Opera. Maybe they should have ratings like movies? Hmmmm. I wonder if this dark tendency is exaggerated in those who listen to the entire Ring Cycle, then watch Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now. North also mentioned that if he dropped his wallet, the person most likely to return it would be a Country and Western devotee; in fact, he said this group generally had the nicest and most neighborly people.

To honor these people Barbara Budd played (I think) “I love my dog”. It seems they are also more likely to have pets.

Just for fun, here are some random results from the survey:

  • Least likely to use drugs: Musicals devotees (23.4%)
  • Most likely to use Cannabis: DJ based music lovers (64%)
  • 13% of Opera lovers have used Magic Mushrooms
  • Received a Driving Violation: greatest percentages are 49% of Blues lovers and 45% of Opera lovers. Moral, don’t listen to Carmen and drive
  • Protestants have the strongest propensities for Musicals (48%), Adult Pop (47%), and Rock(47%)
  • Catholics are more catholic in their tastes, but do have a slight preference for Country and Western and Opera (20% each). As long as there is no fusion…
  • Vegetarions prefer R&B, Soul, and Opera (15-18%)
  • Left wing people prefer Sixties pop; right wing people prefer Country and Western, followed by Opera (but the percentage of left and right wing people that like Opera are both about 32-34%)
  • Homeowners: 84% of Classically inclined people own their own
  • Currently Married: Classical at 69%
  • Have had a divorce: Greatest are Opera and Adult Pop
  • Largest difference by sex in a musical preference: Current pop with 83% women and only 17% men loving it.
  • Smallest difference by sex in a musical preference: Indie and DJ based, at 49-51%
  • Most likely to have Internet access: Indie (79%)
  • Most likely to have a cell phone: R&B (82%)
  • Highest percentage of charitable volunteers: Jazz, Opera, Classical, then Musicals
  • Lowest percentage for same: Sixties pop
  • Employed: Adult pop (86%)
  • Unemployed: DJ based (11%)
  • Retired: Opera (32%)
  • Frequency of Bathing: Least is Opera (see previous), most is Other pop, DJ-based, and Soul
  • Smoke too much: Blues (I have the nicotine smoking junkie blues, oh yeeah…)

Take Five

North’s research is summarised here, his new international questionnaire is there, and three of his relevant research publications are here again.

BTW, as a side note there is an International Association of Empirical Aesthetics. What an intriguing name. Aesthetics by trial and error? 😉

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For those unfamiliar with the term, Silly Season is part of news media parlance. It refers to the latter part of the summer, and is caused by a reduction in both sales of newspapers and people watching the news media. It is caused by two major factors; a reduction in genuine newsworthy items in the summer, and also by people who pay less attention because they have better things to do (such as summer vacation, promoting skin cancer on the beach, and beloved little ones hanging around the house and making the summer an absolute pleasure).

To offset the reduction of revenue, the editors look for more sensationalistic (and sometimes just plain weird) news to boost sales. Traditionally popular items were moral panics or child abductions. An unfortunate side effect of the Silly Season is that legitimate but unusual news is sometimes neglected or ignored.

Now for the news. A friend of mine asked me about this news article. The headline was " Former Space Camp Instructor Predicts Giant Tsunami in the Atlantic on Upcoming May 25". Since that is today, I thought it worthwhile to give it a look. The news article was instigated by Eric Julian, a pilot and air traffic controller. The scientific basis for the story is the near approach of a fragmenting comet called Z3P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 (Zippy for short). Zippy is about 10 million kilometres from Earth and it's fragments are as close as a few million kilometres (about 10+ times as far away as the Moon). From credible information available, there is absolutely no danger.

From Eric Julian, there is ample evidence for worry, including a crop circle showing the Solar System, with the notable exception of the Earth. How do you interpret a missing planet in a crop circle to mean that a comet will impact the Earth on May 25, 2006? Did the circle come with an interpretive guide? This "evidence" is detailed on the webpage of the Exopolitics Institute (Political Analysis and Activism in Extraterrestrial Affairs, no less). On his own web page warning of the event, Julien mentions compelling psychic evidence, and asks others for their paranormal support. There is also some sort of link to extraterrestrials and some ancient prophecies.

I have to admit that I have not been fair to this person, and I have only read a very small amount of his warning. However, since my research gives me a fair background in tsunami dynamics, I did take a glance at his flooding maps and timing charts for a hit in the Atlantic Ocean, just south of the Azores. In my professional opinion, and not to put too fine a point on it, the tsunami information is basically crap! First, his maps for timing the passage of a tsunami take no account of the ocean topography, which is the primary factor determining both the path and velocity of tsunami motion. I also checked some areas in the Atlantic Provinces, and he has flooded areas that are higher than nearby places that are lower. For example, the highest hills on the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland are near Bauline, which he has underwater.

More to the point, while Zippy is a subject of some exciting research into comet structure, NASA has no worries. They have a program for tracking Near Earth Objects (NEOs), complete with all identified NEO approaches through 2020.

Normally I wouldn't bother either myself or you about this trash. But there was a more serious side to what has been going on regarding Julien's prediction, and it also points out a danger of the Silly Season. In this case, the news spread through coastal communities in Morocco. Many locals, remembering the 2004 tsunami that devastated Indonesia, have evacuated to high ground, in spite of information from the government and from the national meteorological office showing that the comet posed no danger. Locally, we have received some calls asking for information on the comet impact.

I am disappointed that several media sources bothered to even mention Julian's revelation. News sources hoping for legitimacy should choose not to proliferate such mendacity. People can be hurt by such items. When those in Morocco who evacuated get back to their homes, how much of their property and livelihood will have been stolen or damaged by looters, and how many injuries and how much suffering will have occurred? There are many people spouting nonsense; the danger is when "reliable" sources spread this information.

There are two lessons and a warning in this. First, check the validity of unusual news stories, regardless of the source. Second, don't assume that Silly Season news items only occur in late summer. Finally, those who cry wolf without good evidence and common sense should be fed to same.

Whoops! I just saw a whitecap through the window. Excuse me… 

Everybody's gone surfin', ....

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Freezing rain pictures to set the mood.

Churchill Walking into the Light.


Container Pier

Freezing Rain


Freezing Rain

After 3-4 hours sleep I awoke at 6 am to get ready to work at the weather office. The shift is 12.25 hours, starting at 7 am, and today I was responsible for the Newfoundland and Labrador public and 5 day forecasts and the media messages for same. In case you don't know, one forecaster is responsible for the NL public forecast, one for the NS/NB/PEI public forecasts, one for the marine forecasts for the Maritimes and Newfoundland, one for the wave forecasts for all Atlantic Canadian waters, and in the spring one for the weather forecast used to help predict flooding along the St. John River in New Brunswick. Finally there is a supervisor responsible for checking all the forecasts and monitoring things, and for doing a few forecasts of his or her own.

For those unaware of the geography involved, ALL the Maritime provinces combined have about the same land area as Newfoundland, and Newfoundland has 1/3 the land area of Labrador. The point here is that today I was forecasting for 80% of the area of the Atlantic Provinces.

The second implication is that there is almost always something going on, and that there isn't much time to waste. For example, I remember the following problems that had to be addressed:

  • In Labrador, a heavy snowfall ending in Goose Bay; drizzle and rain in the Strait of Belle Isle; freezing rain a little north of that; continuous snow in Cartwright; whether, where, and when we would get freezing rain tomorrow along the coast; and ice pressure warnings along the South and Mid Labrador Coasts,
  • Avalon Peninsula: whether freezing rain would make it to the Avalon Peninsula tonight and tomorrow night, and whether there would be any sunny breaks today or tomorrow (I wasn't overly optimistic, and I saw little evidence except near Grates Cove for today),
  • Northeast Coast: freezing drizzle and whether it would be continuous for 8 hours or more, which would require a warning. Also, when and if wet snow would change to rain,
  • Baie Verte: Rain changing to snow, then to snow mixed with freezing rain, switching to flurries, then …. all based on one auto station that doesn't tell you what the precipitation type is and with a badly calibrated set of temperature measuring devices. The only other thing is a Dept. of Highways webcam with a dirty lens!
  • West coast: continuous flurries and when they would die out,
  • South Coast: nothing much,
  • Central: whether significant freezing drizzle would penetrate from the Northeast coast,
  • Extended forecasts for both Labrador and Newfoundland out to five days.

To make it more interesting, the entire cycle has to be done twice during a shift, add a forest fire forecast for the entire province, add media interviews on some days, and you can see it can get a little hectic. Finally, this was a day when no warnings had to be issued or monitored or updated every three hours or less.

Also today I had to get a little admin work done because security in the building was being enhanced, so I now have a new key and a new badge with a picture of me with a sour expression.

While things were going on today, Lee Titus, a friend from the old Gander office came down and asked for a little help with Matlab. He wanted to make a function that would locate any geographical point in our forecast region within its appropriate grid box in the weather model. I figured out a 6 line algorithm to do this and explained the idea to him and what functions he would need. He came back just as I'd finished the morning forecast with a problem (he'd forgotten to reference his map to a grid reference). Then while I was working on the afternoon forecast (we have one less hour to do this because of the time change and the fact that the computer model can't change to daylight saving time; data around the world is fed into the model at 0,6,12,and 18 hours Greenwich), Lee comes back telling me he keeps getting the wrong location. I told him I'd see him after the forecast issue time, then I had a look; he'd flipped lat for long in one line of the code. After fixing it and testing with a few points he went home happy and I had 3 hours left in my shift.

I went back to the weather office and monitored and adjusted the forecast a little, then left at 7 pm. After getting home I realised I'd forgotten to log my work hours, and I'll have to go back some time this week to do it.

However, some good things happened. Overall the forecast worked out for today, especially on the Northeast Coast and in Labrador. Second, when going for coffee I saw some possible photo ops so the next time I went for coffee I took the camera. Then after work I saw some nice clouds behind the MacDonald Bridge (a suspension bridge) and got some images which may or may not work out. It looked really nice in real life, and it was fun trying to get a good exposure, and to shoot without a tripod near sundown. Also, the time change allowed me to be outside before dark after work!

This is one of the best things about photography. Whether your shots work or not, you have seen something nice enough to deserve a good shot, and you have paid attention to it and enjoyed it. Also, in trying to get a good composition, you get to see the scene from a good vantage. Finally, as a photographer you are always noticing things that are interesting, funny, attractive, or really beautiful. You aren't worrying about the little things, and you are more in the world.

In summary, a typical day forecasting for Newfoundland and Labrador, working with pleasant people who share your disgust with some of the tools that Environment Canada is forced to use this day, and ending with some nice images and scenery. Tomorrow it is back to regular research at Dalhousie.

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