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This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

Each post will begin with a capsule summary. It will then proceed with captioned sections to amplify and justify the statements and conclusions of the summary. I'll present images and tables where helpful to develop a point, since "a picture is worth a thousand words".

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Our Life in a Technology-Driven World

Summary. Our lives in the early 21st century benefit from remarkable changes wrought by science and technology in the last 200 years.  As a human endeavor, science consists of a method of inquiry into the natural world based on open-minded investigation, rather than one biased in one direction or another that develops support for a desired point of view.

Certain science-based phenomena have come to light in recent decades that adversely affect human health or damage the environment.  Rigorous study showed that, in each case, products or practices of large corporations turned out to be responsible.  Those commercial interests sought to raise questions about the scientific results in the minds of the public, rather than continue further research to develop sound solutions to the problems.
We humans have benefited from the advances provided by science and technology.  We cannot justifiably select the science we like and dismiss the science that we don’t.

Benedict (Benny to his friends) is waking slowly, after having stayed late at a party last night.  He’s already enveloped in the soothing sounds of his favorite music, Sounds from Space, that invariably puts him in a mellow mood.  His radio came on with the music using an alarm setting.   He also plays music on his CD player; over the years he’s accumulated an extensive library of CDs.  His tastes run quite eclectic.
At last Benny swings himself out of bed and hops on to his Stair Stepper for a workout.  It’s equipped with a TV monitor so he can watch the latest news as he exercises.
After a leisurely breakfast, he gets ready to head out for his weekly frisbee match.
After the vigorous physical exertion of the game, he comes home and turns on his air conditioner to make his apartment more comfortable.  Air conditioners are effective because they lower the air temperature, but equally importantly, they remove some humidity from the air.  Lower humidity makes the body feel cooler because its perspiration evaporates more easily, cooling the skin.
Later, that afternoon, Benny has decided to attend a lecture at the local library on the shoreline habitats for all manner of wildlife. Lately he’s become even more interested in the natural world, and how different species interact in their habitats.  The lecturer is using a computer-driven digital projector, and he emphasizes his discussion as he goes along using a laser pointer.
In the evening, Benny and Valerie, his girlfriend, went out for dinner and came back to relax with a movie streamed over the internet.

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Benny’s day, a rather routine one in today’s world, benefited from many products that rely on developments in science and technology.  Here we’ll discuss two classes of appliance, and a third that because of careful scientific investigation, became quite controversial.
Telegraph, and radio and television.  For all of history before the industrial revolution, news, books and artwork traveled only as fast as humans could carry them.  Walking and travel by horseback could transmit physical objects, whereas drumbeats, smoke signals and semaphore signaling could communicate more terse messages. 
In the 1830’s and 1840’s clusters of inventors in the U.S. and England separately developed the telegraph.  In the U. S., one of those was Samuel Morse.  The previous post mentioned that nineteenth century physicists developed an understanding of the reciprocal interactions between electricity and magnetism.  With the telegraph, a key pressed by a sender completed an electric circuit so that current could instantaneously flow as far as a conducting wire could be strung.  At the destination, the current activated an electromagnet to sound a click.  In addition to developing the technology Morse invented Morse code, by which the spacing between clicks permitted coding every letter of the alphabet.  The technology developed into the Western Union Company (cofounded by Ezra Cornell, for whom the university is named) which strung wires across the U. S.  This revolutionary technology liberated the transmission of information from the historical limits of personal or visual/auditory messaging.
The telephone built on the electromagnetic transmission of coded messages to the direct, immediate transmission of sound, especially the human voice.
The laws of physics relating to electromagnetism also led to radio and television transmission.  Perhaps, if you live in an older home, you’ve noticed that a window sash will buzz or vibrate in its track as an airplane or a truck passes by.  The window sash has its own characteristic vibration.  The sound from the passing plane or truck can set the window vibrating, but only if the vibrations of the sound waves have the same pitch as the natural vibration of the window sash.  This is variously called forced vibration or sympathetic vibration. 
Radio and TV transmission and reception work the same way.  A radio transmitter is designed to emit radio waves at a specific vibration frequency.  If a specific receiver circuit in a radio or TV is adjusted to vibrate at the same frequency, the broadcast signal is picked up by the receiver, amplified, and delivers sound and picture images.  If the tuner is not adjusted to the appropriate frequency it will not receive the broadcast signal.
Benny’s air conditioner is filled with a refrigerant gas, a chlorofluorocarbon.  The technological principles underlying operation of refrigerators and air conditioners were explained in the preceding post. 
Use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) is an example where a useful technology turns out to have harmful consequences.  When they were developed and entered the market, the use of CFCs as refrigerants and in other applications became widespread. During the 1980’s, however, researchers discovered that the amount of ozone in the stratosphere (a zone centered around 15 mi. above Earth’s surface) was diminishing compared to earlier years. Stratospheric ozone is beneficial because it filters out ultraviolet light from incident sunlight.  (This should not be confused with ground level ozone, a health hazard, which is produced by smog on hot days.) If ozone becomes depleted, more ultraviolet (UV) light can reach the surface of the earth.  The additional UV could increase the incidence of skin cancer the world over if the ozone depletion were to continue.
After some years atmospheric scientists showed clearly that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) caused the ozone depletion.  These compounds enter the atmosphere when refrigeration equipment leaks its refrigerant or is improperly disposed of; when we use spray cans, such as hair spray; and when CFCs are used as industrial foaming agents.  Even a small amount of CFCs has a powerful destructive effect because the active component derived from CFCs is re-used in the chemistry of ozone destruction many times over.    For this discovery, Paul Crutzen, Mario Molina, and Frank Rowland were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995. 
In light of this new understanding almost 50 of the world’s nations, the main producers and users of CFCs, agreed to the Montreal Protocol of 1987 to phase out use of these compounds.
Corporate Interests generated doubt and delay.  Early on the manufacture of CFCs, and of the spray cans that use them, became a lucrative business.  Rigorous scientific  research, pursued as a quest for understanding of basic properties of the natural world, led to evidence showing that CFCs were responsible for destroying stratospheric ozone.  As this evidence was accumulating, however, the companies  sought to neutralize the impact of the scientific results (Wikipedia; N. Oreskes and E. M. Conway, “Merchants of Doubt”, 2010, Bloomsbury Press, New York), without offering scientific evidence to support their position. 
In one paper, prepared by Greenpeace for the 9th meeting of participants in the Montreal Protocol in 1997, a threefold corporate strategy of disinformation used by a major corporation was summarized:
Deny that CFCs are responsible.  The corporation wrote in 1979: "No ozone depletion has ever been detected...all ozone depletion figures to date are based on a series of uncertain projections." 
Delay.  In the years surrounding the signing of the Montreal Protocol, this corporation sought to delay implementation of its terms by lobbying activities.  In 1986 it testified before Congress: "we believe that there is no immediate crisis that demands unilateral regulation."
Dominate.  The industry had already developed alternatives to CFCs, closely related in chemical structure to the banned compounds, by which they intended to dominate the world market for refrigerants and propellants.


This post and the preceding one, and perhaps a few more to come, strive to point out that humanity benefits from scientific endeavor, in all its varied subject matter.  Scientists work by pursuing characterization of our natural world in an open, unbiased fashion.  The results of scientific investigations and the technologies that result from those studies benefit our lives in innumerable ways.  The progress we humans have made began largely with the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century; it represents a revolutionary departure from the way of life humans had known throughout history.
Telegraph and radio communication point out how scientific development permitted humans to communicate instantaneously across great distances.  Prior to this time human communication traveled primarily only as fast as we could move across land and sea.

The example of CFCs used as refrigerants and propellants likewise shows how research creates new materials intended to have beneficial properties.  The detrimental aspect of their use, promoting the destruction of stratospheric ozone, was unforeseen.  It is thanks to further atmospheric research that the mechanism of ozone destruction was unequivocally identified, and still newer substances that avoid this downside were created.  (Unfortunately, both CFCs and the newer refrigerants are extremely potent greenhouse gases.  It will require still further efforts to overcome this detriment.)
When the drawback of CFCs was identified the powerful corporations that manufactured them sought to diminish the significance in the mind of the public of the scientific research underlying the problem.  But science proceeds in the same way regardless of whether we consider the results to be favorable or harmful.  As shown above, the same scientific process led to potential solutions that overcame the disadvantages. 
The public at large, and corporate entities impacted by research results, cannot cherry pick the results they like and dismiss the ones they don’t.  Rigorous pursuit of the scientific method is the only way forward.
© 2017 Henry Auer