12 December 2007

Prevention of climate change without binding targets?

The United Nations Conference on Climate Change is underway; Australia signed the Kyoto Protocol at last but refuses to accept binding carbon dioxide (CO2) reduction targets unless China and other developing countries accept them, too. Can such a stand be justified, and on what grounds? Let us look at some basic premises and evaluate the consequences.

Premise 1: Every human being, whether in a developed or a developing country, has the same right to a decent standard of living.

Premise 2: To stabilize the climate the world has to return to a sustainable level of CO2 output. I don't know what this level is - I assume Bali will be able to tell us that – but for the sake of the argument let us assume that the CO2 output of 1990 is sustainable. (The actual year does not matter to the argument, as we shall see.)

According to United Nations statistics, the global CO2 output of 1990 amounted to 21,563 million tons. The current world population is something like 6,602 million people. If we accept premise 1 we have to accept that every person is entitled to emit the same amount of CO2 into the atmosphere. To maintain the output of 6,602 million people at the level of 1990 means that every person should not exceed an annual output of 3.25 tons of CO2.

What does that mean for different countries? Again according to United Nations statistics, in 2004 India's per capita CO2 output was 1.2 tons; China's output was 3.8 tons, Australia's output was 16.3 and the output of the USA 20.4 tons.

It is obvious that the developed world will have to change very, very dramatically. It is also obvious that nothing but sheer selfishness can support the argument that the developing countries should reduce their CO2 output. On moral grounds we have to say that it would be nice and very generous of India if it tries to minimize its increase in CO2 output; but even if it doubled its output it would still not have reached its allowable limit. China has obviously reached its allowable limit and should not increase its output further.

This is not the first time this simple calculation has been done. The German chancellor Angela Merkel mentioned the same idea once and was promptly declared off the planet. Nevertheless, Germany's electricity rates are the highest in Europe, and the country is moving ahead with the development of carbon-neutral technologies at a surprising pace, while Australia increases its coal export to secure its standard of living and the USA use its military force to secure the world's oil fields for its exclusive use.

I am sure that the actual numbers differ somewhat from my example – the world population has grown since 2004, and 1990 is probably not a good basis for sustainability. But the principle remains the same: The developed world has no moral or other right whatsoever to insist on CO2 output cuts from the developing world.

The idea of buying carbon credits from poor countries to allow oneself the continuation of one's reckless lifestyle is a fallacy. Besides being on very shaky moral ground it will not work, because the money paid to the poor countries will inevitably lead to rapid increases in their CO2 output as people use it to improve their living standard.

The only way forward for developed countries is to accept very high binding reduction targets and to begin with a profound restructuring of their lifestyles.

Reference: United Nations Statisitcs can be found at http://unstats.un.org/unsd/databases.htm.

The statistics on per capita CO2 output are at http://unstats.un.org/unsd/cdb/cdb_topic_xrxx.asp?topic_code=32

10 December 2007

Saint Augustine and Evolution

In Lecture 25 (Evolution, the answer to the biological explosion) I already mentioned Augustine of Hippo as a man of the Church who did not see a contradiction between the Biblical account of the origin of the world and scientific insight.

I now came across a quote from his work The Literal Interpretation of Genesis that should give the defenders of creationism something to think about: One of the most venerated "Fathers of the Church" defends science against blind interpretation of the Bible. Here is what Saint Augustine had to say in 408 AD:

"It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation."

(The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 1:19–20, Chapt. 19 [AD 408]; found in the Wikipedia entry for Augustine.)

24 November 2007

The discovery of Caral and the Supe civilization

When I said in Lecture 2 that Caral was only discovered "in the last decade of the last century" (i.e. after 1990) I fell victim to a phenomenon described by Katherine Reece in the book Archaeological Fantasies: How Pseudoarchaeology Misrepresents the Past and Misleads the Public as "mass media reports of shocking new, history-altering discoveries." Broadcasters like the British Broadcasting Service should certainly be commended for their many outstanding productions on history and archeology; but the style of these television series, which always present some interesting archaeological work as groundbreaking and counter to all previous knowledge, is not only sensationalizing but can also be quite misleading - it certainly was in my case.

Caral, a city of the Norte Chico or Supe civilization, came into the limelight through a television program (I cannot remember whether from the BBC or not) in the late 1990s. This was followed by papers in Science in 2001 and Nature in 2005. These reports overshadowed the fact that the ruins of Caral had been known since at least 1945, and that ruins of several other settlements of the Supe civilization (Aspero, Huaca Prieta, Kotosh and others) had been studied before, some as early as 1905. I only became aware of this when I researched early American civilizations for my "Civilizations of the World" Time Atlas project.

Still, it is no exaggeration to say that America's place in the history of early civilizations has only been recognized about 100 years ago. It is also true that much still remains to be learned about civilizations in the tropical parts of South America.


Katherine Reece: Memoirs of a true believer. In Garrett F. Fagan (editor): Archaeological Fantasies: How Pseudoarchaeology Misrepresents the Past and Misleads the Public pp. 96 – 106. RoutledgeFalmer (2006)

Wikipedia: Caral. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caral)

14 October 2007

Should the IPCC receive the Nobel Peace Prize?

Two days ago the Nobel Peace Prize Committee allocated the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007 in equal parts to Al Gore and to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) "for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change".

Al Gore has spent a considerable part of his life to make people aware of the consequences of our use of fossil fuels. He did this at a time when general opinion was still against him and he had to suffer taunts and recrimination from many sides. His conviction, courage and determination make him a most suitable candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, which after all should honour those who are prepared to go beyond the normal call of duty in the quest for peace.

But why the IPCC, a scientific panel organized to garner the knowledge of the global scientific community about climate change? International science has many panels and working groups on various unresolved questions of science; the IPCC is just one of them, although admittedly probably the largest. Scientists who work in them or with them are doing their job just as many others. They contribute their knowledge without expecting personal return, but they do that as part of their everyday work. Honouring them with the Nobel Peace Prize should be an acknowledgment of service beyond normal duties, as it undoubtedly is in the case of Al Gore but not in the case of the scientists who contribute to the work of the IPCC. Allocating part of the Nobel Peace Prize to the IPCC cannot be justified through its work; it is a political decision designed to highlight the urgency of tackling global warming.

That global warming has to be tackled urgently is beyond doubt. The Nobel Peace Prize Committee has to be applauded for its decision to bring the issue to everyone's attention again. It could have achieved that by giving the entire prize to Al Gore.

The somewhat skewed decision is not necessarily out of step with the history of the Nobel Peace Prize. Unlike the Nobel Prizes for Physics, Chemistry and Medicine, which are given to indisputably outstanding achievements in science, and the Nobel Prize for Literature, which does contain a subjective element of literary taste but always honours outstanding writers, the Nobel Peace Prize has made some serious mistakes. The allocation of the prize in 1994 to Yasser Arafat, who used violent means to defend the rights of the Palestinian people, and Yitzhak Rabin, a member of the Zionist terrorist organization Haganah that in the 1920s and 1930s assisted the British to suppress Arab uprisings against the occupying forces, could be justified by arguing that the two nominees had repented. But the reason for the allocation of the prize was the signing of the Oslo Accords. These accords led to a Palestinian "Authority" that has become an assistance force for the Jewish occupation and has lost all credibility with the Palestinian population; it can even be argued that the Oslo Accord laid the grounds for the rising importance of the religious-based Hamas. It is questionable whether the Oslo Accord was an instrument of peace or just another step in a continuing violent conflict. Francis Sejersted, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, foreshadowed this in his presentation speech of 1994 already when he noted: "It has been said that the Nobel Committee ought to have waited." It should have done so, indeed.

A real travesty of the idea of a peace prize was its allocation to Henry Kissinger (shared with Le Duc Tho) in 1973 for "arranging the ceasefire" [of the Vietnam conflict] "after negotiating for nearly four years." Kissinger was not only responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths during the bombing campaign that began in 1969 but torpedoed attempts of South and North Vietnam at a peace treaty after the ceasefire was signed and prolonged the war by two years for the sole purpose of strengthening his and Nixon's position in internal American politics. He has been labeled a war criminal in many publications including two books; the fact that he does not dare to take libel action against them proves the accuracy of the accusations. Understandably Le Duc Tho avoided to be on the podium with Kissinger; he refused to accept the prize.

Compared with such aberrations the allocation of the prize to the IPCC is a minor matter. But I still think that it is not the role of a peace prize to honour scientists for work done in the normal course of their duties.


The Nobel Prize decision

On Henry Kissinger

On the role of the Palestinian "Authority"

More information:
Wikipedia entries on Kissinger, the Paris Peace Accords, Yitzhak Rabin, Haganah and others

12 September 2007

The International System of Units

Today the European Union announced that it gave Britons permission to keep their imperial units in parallel to the metric system forever. This reminded me of a statement in my lecture 21: "Since 1975, when Britain, Canada and Australia finally converted to SI units, the USA remain the only scientifically and economically important country that does not use SI units." I noticed that I was giving the British government more credit than it deserves.

Britain changed from the Pound/Shilling/Pence currency system to the decimal Pound/Pence system in 1971, but that was about it. Distances are still in miles, volumes in pints and gallons (though different from US pints and gallons), weights are in ounces and pounds, and the list goes on ...

I changed the text in lecture 21 to: "Since 1975, when Canada and Australia converted to SI units, Britain and the USA remain the only scientifically and economically important countries that do not use SI units."

In Britain, labelling and measuring in metric has been compulsory since 2000, but not in the USA. The reason for this difference is very simple: 88% of Britain's trade is with metric countries, and Britain's industry would experience a great disadvantage if it continued to offer goods based on imperial measurements. In contrast, the economy of the USA is based on a very large domestic market, while the export of goods made in the USA represents only a minor component. The US-American manufacturing industry considers the continued use of imperial measures a shield against imports from metric countries.

While I was going through the lecture I noticed the sentence: " There had to be an end to inches, Zoll, furlongs, yards and whatever other units of length were in use across Europe." Inches, furlongs and yards are British measures, Zoll is German. The German measures disappeared from use when Napoleon occupied the country and reorganized its administration, but inches, furlongs and yards are still alive. To move my sentence closer to reality I replaced the British measures by the French length measurements league and pouce and threw in the German Elle for good measure: " There had to be an end to league, Zoll, pouce, Elle and whatever other units of length were in use across Europe."

30 August 2007

Science, Civilization and Society now in book form

The material for the lecture course Science, Civilization and Society is now available in book form. It can be downloaded from the website in PDF format.

The book is a condensed version of the lecture notes found on the website. As a book it cannot include the animations that are used on the website to explain physical principles. It also arranges the material in a somewhat different order. But it offers a good way to study the history of science and civilization and the interaction between them away from the computer.

NOTE: See the update of 29 July 2008.

23 August 2007

The 3rd Earl of Shaftsbury

Lecture 22 associated the ethical principle "Help those in distress, if you sympathize with their sufferings!" with a person named as Shaftsbury. This was rather vage information. I changed it to Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671 - 1713), the English moral philosopher who expressed that principle in his works.

The Jantar Mantar at Delhi

My original information about the Jantar Mantar at Delhi said that it was "built under the reign of the Mughal ruler Muhammad Shah, who reigned from 1791 to 1841." That seems to be incorrect. I think that the observatory in Delhi was also built on the orders of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, ruler of the state of Jaipur in Rajasthan from 1699 to 1743. I changed the text accordingly. If anyone has a reference to verify this I would appreciate a response to this comment.

17 August 2007

Reformatio Sigismundi

There was an error in the original text of lecture 19, which said: "The reformatio sigismundi, a pamphlet produced in 1439 on one of Gutenberg's new printing presses ..." Gutenberg's invention was not complete until 1455. I corrected the text to "The reformatio sigismundi, a pamphlet produced in 1439, printed in 1476 on one of Gutenberg's new printing presses, reprinted seven times and distributed throughout Germany ..."

Did China survey the world in 1421?

When I prepared the core question of lecture 17 (Why did China not colonize the world during the 15th century?) four years ago, Menzies' book "1421, the Year China Discovered America" had just hit the market. It provided some clues that could help to resolve the contradiction between China's technological capabilities and its abstention from colonial conquest.

Over the last few weeks I had another look at Menzies' claims and what others say about them and am no longer so convinced about his book. It contains many dubious statements and relies on evidence provided by people with dubious records; as a result, Menzies has lost much of his credibility. I changed the text of the lecture accordingly and shall install the changed version later today. While I still think that Menzies raises interesting and important questions my lecture notes no longer refer to his theory as a serious contribution to scientific debate. I now leave it to the readers to follow up the question of China's role in 15th century exploration themselves if they want to.

The one thing that has not changed in this discussion is the superiority of Chinese technology over European technology during the 15th century.

25 July 2007

Mileva Einstein-Maric (again)

I now found the time to read the four pages of comments I received a year ago in relation to my text on Mileva Einstein-Maric. I made some minor amendments to the text and changed one word in lecture 28 but could not find much argument why my profile of Mileva Einstein-Maric is unacceptable. I'll upload the changes tomorrow when I get to my office at the university.

23 July 2007

The Ptolemaic system

Jon Anderson from Western Michigan University pointed out in an email already five months ago that I had an error in the discussion of epicycles in lecture 8. I wrongly attributed the idea of epicycles to Eudoxus of Cnidus, while it is due to Apollonius of Perga.

Now that my last and final paper in oceanography has been accepted and is with the printer I can finally spend more time again on Science, Civilization and Society. I fixed the error and added a brief personal page for Apollonius. I'll upload the new pages next Thursday (26/7) when I get to the office again. (The university firewall does not allow me to upload pages from home.)

09 July 2007

The precautionary principle

My support for the precautionary principle received a rather caustic email response from the CEO of the Institute for Trade, Standards and Sustainable Development (ITSSD), a " US-based nonprofit and nonpartisan legal research and advocacy organization". To my surprise it claimed that I compare "economic/democratic capitalism" with my "preferred French paternalistic socialist model of governance". This was the first time anyone told me that France is a socialist country.

The email can hardly be described as a contribution to scientific debate. It was the type of opinion piece that now tends to replace hard factual information in the newspapers: I was accused to promote "partisan science ideology of socialistic paternalism and utopianism, which is symptomatic of the religious faith-based orthodoxy of precautionary principle advocates".

How can one react to such stuff? I tried to explain that "I teach my students to base every judgement on facts. In my lecture notes I try to show the development of science, civilization and society based on facts of history. I may not have achieved that in every aspect, but I hope that people at least see that I tried." But that did not satisfy the ITSSD, who declared that I do not understand "the legal and economic dimensions surrounding these issues".

I think the real value of the emails from the ITSSD is the demonstration of the hardline ideological character of those who oppose the European initiative to give the precautionary principle more prominence in the administration of industrial products such as new chemicals. I am sure that the "nonpartisan" ITSSD does not speak for the scientists of the USA, but it surely reflects government attitude. If you want to see this kind of ideology in action, see my "Postscriptum" at the end of lecture 35.

Matthias Tomczak

Albert Einstein and Mileva Einstein-Maric

As promised in my welcome note I post a summary of some email correspondence I received before I set up this blog.

One correspondence concerned the description of Mileva Einstein-Maric's role in the development of Einstein's ideas about relativity. The correspondent said that I gave Mileva Einstein-Maric too much credit and painted her academic achievements in a glowing light.

I only became aware of the issue of Mileva Einstein-Maric's assumed contributions to Albert Einstein's work through articles in New Scientist and a television program. When I followed the stories up it became soon clear that the issue has a strong polarizing effect and that some people think that she is a forgotten genius, while others insist that this is all rumour and has no base in fact.

I am not in a position to follow this up with research of my own. I intend to go through my text again during the next few weeks and check my statements carefully. But I can says this: In the context of Science, Civilization and Society it is of no consequence whether Mileva had comparable or even better marks than Albert at university or whether her marks were rather average. The important point of her life is that she was a woman who was denied her chance to an academic career, which she could have had, had she been born a man. Her life is thus an illuminating example for the situation of women in science at the beginning of the 20th century.

How much Einstein himself contributed to the suppression of Mileva Maric's career I am in no position to judge, and I do not want to dwell on that aspect very long. His donation of his Nobel prize money to his divorced wife could have been motivated by a bad conscience, it could also have been motivated by generosity. What makes one uneasy about young Einstein's attitude to other people's work is the total lack of references in his seminal paper, which was after all not created out of thin air but was the culmination of developments to which a few others had made major contributions - maybe Milena Maric was one of them, maybe not.

Matthias Tomczak

08 July 2007


After two years of teaching "Science, Civilization and Society" at Flinders University in South Australia and three years of web presence of the accompanying lecture notes it is time to give students and other users the opportunity to interact with me and others. So I open this blog for comments and discussion.

I have received the occasional comment and criticism via email in the past. I cannot publish the original emails here, because they were not sent to me with the understanding that they would become public. But I intend to summarize their essence and my responses tomorrow. Until then: Welcome, and let us start a constructive dialogue.

Matthias Tomczak
School of Chemistry, Physics and Earth Sciences
Flinders University of South Australia.