For my April 2007 diary, go here.

Diary - May 2007

John Baez

May 1, 2007

Lisa and I had Gregory Benford and his wife over for dinner, along with Melissa Conway, head of special collections at the UCR library. Why? Well, Benford writes science fiction, and UC Riverside has perhaps the world's best library of science fiction, horror and fantasy: the Eaton Collection. This helped lure Benford, who is based at UC Irvine, over to UCR to be a writer in residence for a couple of weeks. Lisa has taught some courses in science fiction: though her specialty is comparative classics, between China and Greece, she's in a comparative literature department and gets to do fun things like that. So, we had a little SF-based dinner.

I've really enjoyed some of Benford's novels, especially In the Ocean of Night and Across the Sea of Suns, which convey better than any book I'd read before how big space is... and how long it takes to cross. Too many SF stories try to skip over the tiresome process of crossing lightyears of space, often by positing "warp drives" or "hyperspace".

So, it was interesting to meet Benford. He's an opinionated somewhat smart-alecky fellow... a brash techno-optimist, but with a good sense of humor.

He's really gung-ho about a company he's involved with (and maybe owns? — I forget). It sounds pretty interesting. A while back, Michael Rose bred a strain of fruit flies to live more than twice as long as usual, by the simple expedient of taking a bunch of flies and not letting them reproduce until they were old, for many generations. Benford's company bought a bunch of these "Methuselah flies" and had their genes sequenced, finding about 720 genes that seem associated with longevity. Now they're looking for medical supplements that affect the expression of these genes in humans! Apparently a bunch of treatments claimed to make you live longer don't affect the expression of these genes: so far, the only one that does is omega-3 fatty acids from fish. But Benford seems to have more up his sleeves than fish oil: he expects his company to make a lot of money from knowing the genes that affect longevity.

He's also signed up with Alcor to have his head removed and frozen when he dies, so maybe he can be revived when technology improves. He said something like "Hey, it's a long shot — but my odds are a lot better than yours!" He was unsympathetic to Melissa's opinion that the currently available lifespan was quite enough for her. He seemed to think this could only be the result of a mistaken belief in an afterlife.

(I've had a bunch of conversations about life extension with a friend who has a contract with Alcor. Personally it seems I'm not interested in drastic measures to extend my life. I feel pretty satisfied with what I've done already. I don't seem to have a desperate desire to do a lot more. If a longer lifespan were available without much hassle, and with a reasonable expectation of not going senile, I'd probably take it. But, in practice, I'm more worried about staying alive as an unhappy shadow of my former self than I am about dying.)

He thinks "carbon puritanism" is hopeless as a solution to global warming. I think he advocated sequestration; though elsewhere he's suggested blocking some of the Sun's light using astroengineering.

We talked a bit about string theory, loop quantum gravity and the like. He thinks string theory is in trouble... maybe he said so even before I told him I worked on loop quantum gravity, shortly after he saw the sculpture of a Calabi-Yau manifold that my grad students had given me as a wedding present. What to do about the vast landscape of string vacua? How to choose among them? He said we should test theories to see if they predict fractal structures — or as I'd prefer to put it, complex structures on a wide range of distance scales. That seems pretty darn tough to me.

We also talked a bit about astrophysics. He said he'd written some papers about enormous glowing filaments near the center of the Milky Way. I hadn't known about these! He said the biggest one could be a million years old, perhaps formed by some energetic event, maybe a star falling into the central black hole. Here's a quote from an online expository paper he wrote:

The Electrodynamic Snake at the Galactic Center

Gregory Benford

Five years ago radio astronomy revealed the oddest and longest filament yet discovered at our galactic center: a uniquely kinked structure about 150 light years long and two to three light years wide — the Snake. Its large kinks are its brightest parts. There is energetic activity at one end and a supernova bubble at the other, which the Snake appears to penetrate unharmed.

How does nature form stable, long-lived magnetic structures which display considerable polarization (about 60% at 10.55 GHz in the Snake)? In 1988 I had modeled others of the dozens of filaments seen uniquely at the galactic center in terms of an electrodynamic view, in which currents set up coherent magnetic pinches. Such self-organizing filaments can exist in laboratory plasmas for long times; the galactic ones could be at least a million years old, as estimated by the time that shear forces would disrupt them.

The electrodynamic view uses pinch forces of currents to form filaments, driven by the E = v × B of conducting molecular clouds moving across a strong milliGauss ambient, ordered field. A return current must then flow at larger radii, making a closed loop which has a springy flexibility, able to withstand the turbulent velocity fields known near the galactic center. The picture then anticipates that aberrant molecular clouds, moving contrary to the general galactic rotation, should accompany each filament. This prediction has held up as more filaments were found.

Cool. I want to learn more about this — I wrote some more in week252.

We also talked a lot about science fiction writers. Benford is one of a breed of writers from UC San Diego including Vernor Vinge, Kim Stanley Robinson and others. He enjoys talking about these people, and also Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Harlan Ellison and others. For the first time I got the impression of a kind of fraternity of SF writers who all know each other and gossip about each other. Quite unlike Greg Egan — the SF writer I know best — Benford is deeply involved in things like writing workshops, fan conventions, academic conferences, and so on.

May 10, 2007

Fire season is starting early this year, due to the drought! Right after they controlled the Griffith Park fire near the Los Angeles zoo and observatory — shown above — another fire forced people to evacuate the town of Avalon, on Catalina Island:

Luckily, neither caused any loss of life.

May 13, 2007

Right now we've got lots of roses blooming in the back yard, and the bougainvillea, and verbena, and lavender... it's really nice. Our enormous African basil, which seemed to die last summer, is gradually growing back from the roots and becoming enormous again, with purplish leaves and lots of fragrant purple flowers that the bees enjoy.

Today when I went out back I saw a rabbit, a ground squirrel, and a baby ground squirrel all sitting near each other! I scared them all away, because I don't like them eating our vegetables. The rabbit ducked under a fence, the ground squirrel scurried up a wall, and the baby scurried up afterwards... and fell back down! It tried again and made it the second time. Just learning the ropes, I guess.

Squirrels are fairly rare here, at least compared to back east. Instead of the Eastern gray squirrel, S. carolinensis, we have the California ground squirrel, S. beecheyi, which I've never yet warmed to — perhaps because my first encounter with them was seeing the holes they dug in our back yard. Maybe I should reconsider. They have their fans, and let's face it: they're cute.

Later I kept hearing a chirping sound out back — I hear it now, too. It went on and on and on... I thought it was a bird, but I took a look, and it was a ground squirrel: an adult, standing on a cactus! Probably the same one. I think it was keeping tabs on the baby, sort of telling it where home was.

I also saw a lot of baby goldfinches and thrushes today, drinking from the fountain with their parents.

It's really spring!

I've been much more aware of finches ever since we bought a finch sock feeder. They ate all the seeds in that — we need to refill it — but now I see them around more, probably just because I recognize them more easily.

Long-time readers of this diary may note that I've slacked off talking about global warming precisely when all the news — at least the US news — has gone wild talking about it all the time. I guess I don't feel the need to be the canary in the coal mine anymore. But, global warming is the big news story that just won't quit. Here are a couple interesting items.

Ancient Eruptions of Carbon Dioxide Traced to Oceans

Researchers say the gas may have accelerated Earth's warming after an ice age.

Alan Zarembo, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
May 11, 2007

The oceans burped ... twice.

About 13,000 and 18,000 years ago, carbon dioxide poured into the atmosphere in two giant belches that drove concentrations of the greenhouse gas from 180 to 265 parts per million, where it held relatively steady until the Industrial Revolution.

Scientists have long known about the jump in gas levels from looking at ice cores. They suspected the carbon dioxide originated in a deep, carbon-rich reservoir in the oceans but had no way to explain how the gas could accumulate and then be released so suddenly.

Reporting in the journal Science today, researchers said they found the answer in a sample of sediment drilled in the Pacific Ocean.

""This new study nails it," said J.R. Toggweiler, an oceanographer at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, who was not involved in the study. "If there were any doubters, I don't think they have a leg to stand on."

The researchers first correlated the bands of sediments in the core drilled off Baja to the Greenland ice cores. That allowed them to create a matching timeline over the last 38,000 years.

Embedded in the 50-foot-long Baja core were shells left by bottom-dwelling microorganisms. The researchers analyzed the shells to determine the ratio of two isotopes, carbon-12 and carbon-14.

Carbon-14 is produced by cosmic rays in the atmosphere. Thus, water that stays deep in the oceans for thousands of years contains relatively little carbon-14 and lots of carbon-12.

The researchers found two periods that stood out for low carbon-14 levels.

The levels meant that the water during those periods was barely circulating to the surface. Carbon from decaying organic material was accumulating in the deep. The old water eventually rose to the surface, releasing its carbon dioxide in an enormous burp.

Each of the gas releases was recorded in the Greenland ice cores.

Thomas Marchitto, a marine geologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a lead author of the new study, said matching the rise of old water to the atmospheric changes provides strong evidence that the gas came from the ocean.

The burps injected 700 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as Earth was already emerging from an ice age. What started the warming is unknown, but scientists said the release of the gas accelerated it.

Over a 10,000-year span, global temperatures rose by more than 7 degrees Fahrenheit.

Since the Industrial Revolution began in the mid-18th century, the burning of fossil fuels has added 250 gigatons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, raising the carbon dioxide concentration to 385 parts per million and spurring a temperature increase of nearly 2 degrees.

Current emissions are 7 gigatons a year. About half of that is absorbed by oceans.

One mystery about the burps remains: Where did they originate? The sediment sample from Baja was merely a trace left as the old water passed by on its way to the surface. "We still need to find the original reservoir," Marchitto said.

I wonder how sure they are that these CO2 burps came "as the Earth was already emerging from an ice age". I can imagine something like this causing the end of an ice age.

And, most of all, I wonder where the CO2 came from! Previous industrial civilizations?

The relevant paper is:

and there's also a story to set it in perspective: And here's another interesting story. Luckily, unlike the stories above, you can read it for free online! It shows people are taking climate change seriously — except for the Bush administration. A few key quotes:
But while there's still uncertainty about the rate at which sea levels are rising, it has become increasingly clear that temperature increases alone could severely tax a large city's infrastructure. Late last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, MA, released a report titled Climate Change in the U.S. Northeast. Produced in collaboration with climate scientists, the report predicts that by midcentury, northeastern cities could be experiencing an average of 30 to 60 days of temperatures above 90°F (32°C) each year, up from 10 to 15 days historically. By the end of the century, these cities could see 14 to 28 days of temperatures over 100ºF (38°C), if the higher-emission scenarios are realized.


Colorado Springs, CO, is a boomtown in an arid region — just one of many cities that rely for water on the melting snowpack of the nearby mountains, delivered via the Colorado River and Arkansas River watersheds. Many other cities get their water similarly from the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. But right now, the western United States is facing a slow-motion water-supply catastrophe wrought by climate changes that will inexorably reduce the snowpack. "The western U.S. is really not in good shape at this point," says Linda Mearns, a climatologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, CO, where she is director of the Institute for the Study of Society and Environment. This has become fairly clear "even without the regional detail" in climate models, she adds.

But the regional detail is still important for deciding how, where, and when to respond. Consider the Homestake Reservoir. High in the Rocky Mountains, not far from Vail, CO, it is part of a network of reservoirs and pipelines that feed water to Colorado Springs. In June 2006, the reservoir filled at the unprecedented average rate of nearly two feet per day. Because of higher temperatures earlier in the season, the snowpack was melting more quickly than usual.

The unprecedented may become routine as global warming makes more precipitation fall as rain, while what snow there is melts ever faster. That's worrisome: a reservoir that fills more quickly than expected can stress a dry levee. And there are other concerns. At what point will earlier snowmelt translate into summer water shortages? Will early spring torrents raise the risk of downstream flooding? Will more-intense spring rainfalls increase sediment, overwhelming filtration systems and washing more pollutants into the water supply? And these climate-related questions arise at a time when rapid population growth is already stressing water resources.


Two days after I saw the NCAR simulations, I visited Ted Scambos, lead scientist at the University of Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder. Scambos studies ice dynamics to understand the rate at which the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland are responding to climate change. He and other scientists at NSIDC spend their days poring over satellite data, studying how glaciers slide down ancient hidden fjords and how warmer ocean water and the glaciers' own meltwater lubricate their progress. "We are warming so fast that the earth is still staggering backwards from the warming," Scambos said. "We may have already crossed the threshold of the last warm period, a time when people were growing grain in Iceland and raising dairy cattle in southeastern Greenland. And even if you flattened out greenhouse emissions right now, my hunch is that all the arctic sea ice in summer will eventually disappear."

"We're really, really in trouble," he continued. "It's just a question of time. People say climate has changed before and people adapted. That is true. But there weren't six billion of us, with all the arable land working as hard as it could, and every one of those areas counting on climate more or less staying the same. All our infrastructure is built around this climate. Personally, I think we have a strong moral obligation to respond in a fashion that gives people a century from now a reasonable chance of making their way ahead. We should do something."

The ability to "do something," however, depends on getting information that is much better and more detailed. And that will depend on increasingly precise computer models and more monitoring equipment to feed data into those models. Not every city has a Goddard Institute for Space Studies in its backyard, Cynthia Rosenzweig points out. She says every local government should be given the tools to understand how global warming will affect its community. "We need a national capacity for scenarios, to provide every locality in the nation with the input variables they need for projecting impacts and preparing adaptations," she says. "We should begin to incorporate sea-level rise into plans for coastal development. We should improve our responses to heat waves — now — so we can be prepared for greater frequency and duration. And we should consider the potential for more droughts — how we would manage for more droughts and floods."

But from NASA to the NOAA to the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy, the budget picture is dismal. In 2005 dollars, the annual federal budget for climate-change research has been slashed from more than $2 billion in the mid-1990s to less than $1.6 billion today. Earlier this year, a National Academy of Sciences report warned that Earth-observing satellites — basic hardware for monitoring climate change — were at "great risk" of blinking out. Without urgent investment, the report warned, 40 percent of sensors and other instruments aboard NASA spacecraft could stop functioning before the end of the decade. "At these agencies, earth-science and climate — science budgets are either level or decreasing in real dollars," says MIT's Ronald Prinn. "Under those circumstances, what is needed for helping out states and cities is just not going to appear. It is a sad state of affairs. At a time when we should be trying to help at the regional to the local level, with sound advice, we are facing this incapa­bility to have accurate forecasts at the local level that make the advice worth taking."

Last year NASA changed its mission statement, removing "to understand and protect the Earth" from its list of objectives. Along with the National Academy of Sciences, The American Association for the Advancement of Science warns that climate monitoring satellites are in jeopardy as spending shifts towards military and manned space flight programs.

While the US federal government plays ostrich, 31 states joined forces on May 9th to form The Climate Registry: a system for collecting "an accurate, complete, consistent, transparent and verified set of greenhouse gas emissions data".

May 14, 2007

Lisa is back! She'd gone to a conference in Granada on Thursday the 3rd, stopping off to visit our friend Julie Strauss in Greenwich en route. Now she's back. It's 12:30 am, and we had a little dinner... she's pretty darn tired.

She left a booklet about the Alhambra on my side of the bed... I want to look at it! I'm really jealous, since I'm fascinated by Andalusia. Luckily, there's a good chance I'll go to Granada myself in the summer of 2008, since there some category theorists there have invited me to stop by before a conference on homotopy theory and higher categories in Barcelona. Lisa will probably come along and visit her colleague there.

After a good night's sleep...

My friend Chris Lee came to U. C. Riverside and gave a talk on "Mapping evolutionary pathways of HIV-1 drug resistance using conditional selection pressure". Very simply, the idea is to do statistical analyses of the HIV virus genome to see how it evolves. This virus mutates very rapidly, and develops resistance to all the drugs we throw at it. So, we need to understand the evolutionary pathways to design courses of treatment that don't just help it do better at evolving resistance. Luckily, there's enough data to do this now. Chris is using his knowledge of statistics to get the information out of this data:

Later we went out with Lisa to a tapas bar, and wound up dreaming of what it would be like if people could make money by spotting externalities involving public goods.

May 18, 2007

What should we do about climate change? Read what some experts have to say:
The main thing we need is a carbon tax — but this is just one of many things we need.

May 20, 2007

We did a few hours of gardening today; a lot of work but satisfying. Preparing for a summer of extreme drought and fires, I removed some dried-up bushes from the slope behind the house, and raked up a bunch of leaves from the toyon tree.

Everything is blooming and beautiful! But, I find it hard to take photos that capture the mood of the place. I guess my eye automatically zooms in on this or that nice feature and slides right over the duller bits. Photos come out looking busy, and often washed-out, thanks to the bright California sun.

Here are some of the plants in bloom today:

May 27, 2007

This article points out how smaller sample sizes tend to increase the variance, or standard deviation, of any quantity being measured:

Most people don't know this, so they make lots of mistakes when reasoning with statistics.

For example: most of the counties in the United States with the highest rates of kidney cancer tend to be rural. There must be something about the rural lifestyle that causes kidney cancer, right? But wait: most of the counties in the United States with the lowest rates of kidney cancer also tend to be rural.

Why? Because these counties tend to have lower populations. Smaller sample size, more variance!

Wainer gives lots of other cool examples. For example, small public schools in the United States tend to dominate lists of the very best schools. But, they also tend to dominate lists of the very worst! If you only notice one of these facts, you're likely to leap to a wrong conclusion.

But here's the most important example... if it's true. Wainer suggests that men dominate women in many fields of academia not because their average ability is better, but because their variance is higher! He shows that in many standardized tests the variance is higher for men. And, he gives a plausible explanation: with only one X chromosome, men have only one copy of certain genes, where women have two. Redundancy reduces variance. So, we can expect more men to be geniuses in any given field... and more men to be complete idiots!

May 28, 2007

It's Memorial Day. Here's one thing to remember, from the Riverside Press Enterprise:
Riverside produced a selfless heroine and martyr who has not been given enough recognition. This person was a student nurse named Charlotte Waggoner Fay who had graduated in 1916 from Riverside Girls High School. She was called to help with the case overload at Riverside City Hospital during the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Charlotte worked around the clock to assist the many victims of the terrible flu. Not yet a registered nurse, she gave the profession her all.

Often the sufferers of influenza would appear to recover only to die from a secondary infection such as pneumonia or tuberculosis.

Unwilling to leave the sick persons in her charge, Charlotte worked to the point of exhaustion. In this weakened state, she caught the flu and died Oct. 28, 1918. World War I was still raging and Charlotte was not yet 22 years old. She had worked in the nursing field for two years.

For my June 2007 diary, go here.

Leading by examples can be effective way to enact change. The sum of many small acts caused the problem, so only the sum of many small acts will solve the problem. - Patrick Gonzalez

© 2007 John Baez