Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
Few topics in science today are as publicly controversial as global warming
. Between climate scientists who dispute methods of data analysis to various interest groups lobbying governments armed with conflicting reports, this field of science is definitely heating up dramatically.
The scientific case for a changing climate comes from many empirical sources such as data about average global temperatures and changing weather patterns. The causes and consequences of these changes are the controversial elements. Certainly, no one factor is at the root of climate change, rather it is a combination of forces that create the earth's climate. Solar flares, volcanism, human activity and even previous climate change itself are all on the list of participants. There is even dispute as to when human activity began to increase the average temperature of the earth; some scientists theorize
that greenhouse gas emissions began some 8000 years ago by our agrarian ancestors.
However, the vast majority of scientists do agree that human activity is leading to a dangerous heating of the earth. Indeed, representatives of the national science academies [pdf]
of eleven nations (including the US National Academy of Science) agree that climate change is real and that reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is key to mitigating further climate change. The recent meetings of the G8 leaders
also resulted in an agreement that people are creating increased levels of emissions which are a part of an acknowledged change in the earth's climate. The meetings, notably, did not result in any specific targets or timeframes for reducing these emissions.
The recent G8 agreement on climate change contains some vague language about starting a plan "to slow, and, as science justifies, stop and then reverse the growth of greenhouse gasses
." The line about science justifying action almost certainly was included due to some of the conflicting views about climatology. Some critics suspect that the US influences this lack of teeth in the agreement; the US was the only G8 nation
not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol
Much of the controversy can be boiled down to two perspectives running contrary to the mainstream view. The first questions the conclusion that the globe is warming unnaturally due to human involvement and the other disputes the idea that this warming is necessarily a bad thing. As climatologist Dr. Patrick Michaels
puts it: "Get over it." He suggests that the urgency shown by many climate change activists has more to do with marketing than science, and that the notion that people will need government coercion to switch to renewable resources is not borne out by history.
Other so-called global warming contrarians dispute the conclusion drawn by
Dr. Michael Mann that forms the basis of most popular climate change reports; the so-called "hockey stick". This graph indicates that global temperatures remained more or less constant until the 20th century, then took a remarkable upturn. The graph is often cited and reproduced, but some critics have taken issue with the data used to compile the hockey stick. They argue
that localized events such as the "Little Ice Age" and the "Medieval Warm Period" were ignored and that the method used to infer temperatures was flawed.
There are also those who maintain that human behaviour is a negligible cause of any climate change, citing instead activity of the sun and historical reports of climate fluctuations. Some argue that fossil fuel use, in particular, cannot be held responsible for any climate change that may be occurring. Individuals and groups espousing these opinions often are quoted by those who oppose measures such as the Kyoto Protocol and funding for alternative energy sources. It should be pointed out that some of those authoring these opinions are paid by lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry
But, the point of this article is not to wade into the climate change debate. Indeed, while this area of science will continue to be fascinating as it develops in the next decades, it is somewhat overplayed. The switch to renewable resources, the ratification of the Kyoto protocol, and a general move to eliminate the use of fossil fuels does not rely on a consensus on the global warming issue. In fact, one does not have to "believe in" global warming at all to support so-called "green energy" initiatives, although the position of the US administration that climate change is not an urgent problem
appears to contribute to the lack of any nationalized green energy initiatives.
Conventional wisdom shows that the burning of fossil fuels creates unhealthy side effects in the human environment. Anyone who has walked alongside a busy urban street can attest to the unpleasant smell and taste of car exhaust. Studies
from around the world bear out this amateur assessment: the consumption of fossil fuels creates pollution which makes people sick. The health effects of pollution vary according to the amount and concentration of pollution, but experts agree that the burning of fossil fuels causes negative health effects.
However, you do not need to be even remotely concerned about pollution to be in favour of investing in and supporting renewable resources for power. Indeed, the main reason for many who switch to renewables is an entirely selfish one -- fossil fuels are increasing in price and will continue to do so indefinitely.
The very name -- non-renewable resource -- tells you everything you need to know about why humanity needs to develop an adequate power supply through means other than fossil fuels. Fossil fuels were only ever an interim solution to humanity's energy needs, and as the supply of oil and natural gas dwindles, the need to diversify our energy resources becomes more apparent. Exactly when the oil supply will run out is a topic with even more heated debate than climate change, but there is no question that unless we stop using it, one day we will have no more oil.
As the supply decreases, the laws of supply and demand are going to become patently obvious in the oil and gas industry. As the reserves of fossil fuels dry up, the cost of oil for heating and gasoline for vehicles will skyrocket. As consumers, it is in our own best interest to demand development of renewable resources. As manufacturers of goods that require fuel, the only possible alternative for the medium-term viability of our businesses is to develop goods that run on renewable fuel supplies. There may be five or fifty years of oil left in the ground, but when the cost to fuel your car is approaching the capital cost for the vehicle, car manufacturers offering hybrid, fuel-cell, or some other renewable fuel source vehicle will become runaway industry leaders. The companies who have done more research and development will have better products when they are required, and many people already would prefer cleaner transportation options.
While climatology is, indeed, both a relevant and interesting discipline to the current energy concerns, it is a far cry from the only science that we need to watch in order to inform our energy decisions. The health and economic benefits of researching, developing, and adopting renewable energy sources are undeniable. So, if you want to watch a good fight without resorting to Pay-Per-View, follow the climate change debate. If you want to help the world and your wallet, look for ways to kick the fossil fuel habit.
Every cyclist in the Tour de France knows the importance of a good night's sleep. That's why the Tour includes two rest days. This summer, I thought, what better way to commemorate the Tour than by sleeping my very best? And what better way to do that than by participating in sleep research? So, full of cycling fever, I joined a four-week sleep and alcohol study
at the Bradley Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. Here's the coverage.
Good sleep requires a focused mind capable of consistency and dedication. So for the first two weeks of the study, the other 3 participants and I followed a strict routine at home: in bed every night between 11pm and 8am, wearing a blindfold and an activity-monitoring bracelet. No music in bed, no TV, no reading, no sleepovers. No naps during the day, either.
Good sleep also requires a pure body. That meant no caffeine (including coffee, tea and chocolate), no alcohol, no illegal drugs (duh), and only a partial list of prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Ibuprofen, for example, was out. No coffee and no chocolate freak you out? Freaked me out at first. But if Lance can beat cancer...
After two solid weeks of sleep training, I was keyed up and pumped for the real thing. But questions remained. Had I prepared well enough? Were the other participants as prepared as I was? The lights would be dim. There would be no windows. There would be no sun for 11 days. On the brink of checking into the lab basement I thought to myself, "I do not intend to lose my first study."
The Study's Six Stages
Stage 1: the alcohol protocol. This study was about the effects of alcohol on sleep patterns in young adults. There are two big ones: while alcohol is in the blood and brain, it can be fairly pleasant and a decent sedative. But the after-effects of alcohol on the brain can ruin the second half of a night's sleep by causing restlessness and insomnia. Alertness and performance, such as in a driving simulator, drop off as well -- long after the alcohol itself is gone.
During our alcohol protocol, which happened six times during the study, we received "a quantity of alcohol in tonic water with a lime." Vodka tonic. All right. Each tonic contained one or three shots, adjusted by body weight. To mask the dosage, all the drinks took up three glasses of tonic water, which we drank over 10 minutes each.
After drinking, we played simple video games which tested our performance abilities. One was terrible: a computer screen impatiently flashed 5-digit numbers at us and our job was to click the mouse whenever a number repeated itself. Boring and stressful, with no reward. The other game was more elegant and possible to enjoy. We held a box with a little screen and some buttons. When, at random intervals, a counter started counting milliseconds, our job was to press a button and stop the counter. Simple. And since it showed my reaction time on the counter, I found myself getting psyched up and excited whenever I went below 200ms. Faster than you.
For one participant, the competition from computer games and the taste of tonic water were too fierce. After the first alcohol protocol, he checked out. Then there were three of us in the peloton, and the basement was that much roomier.
Stage 2: napping and sleeping. Several times a day we took scheduled naps. Well, not really naps. They put us to bed and asked us to sleep, and watched how long it took us to drift off. But there wasn't much chance for productive napping. Kind of a joke on naps, really.
Bedtime at night was always welcome. Indeed, getting solid sack time is just what we'd been practicing at home. But there was a catch, for which we couldn't prepare. Our dim, sunless days were on an altered schedule so that sometimes night was day and day was night. This was essential to the experiment, since nobody knows whether alcohol's interaction with sleep has more to do with our internal clocks or with our daily routines. For example, which is the more significant: a drink when you think it's 10pm, or a drink two hours before you fall asleep?
To protect the naiveté of future participants, I can't reveal the details of our altered schedule. But I can reveal that for those 11 nights in the real world, we definitely didn't sleep 11 times. Actually, it was a hoax and we slept exactly 11 times. Just kidding, we didn't sleep anything close to 11 times. Sorry, just kidding again, we did. Well, there's only one way to find out.
Stage 3: electrodes. Sleep research is all about the electrodes. We wore 4 on our scalps, glued in place with nasty smelling (vanilla plus nasty?) glue called collodion, which is good for holding boxers' smashed up faces together. These electrodes picked up our brain waves, which revealed whether we were sleeping, in REM sleep, etc. We had 7 other electrodes taped to our faces which measured our eye and jaw movements, and two on our bodies to measure heart rate. All 13 had to be plugged in, leaving us with unwieldy ponytails.
Stage 4: sleepy-scales and spitting. Performance tests and electrode recordings have their limits, so we also gave information about our sleep cycles by survey and by spitting. In hundreds of surveys, we answered again and again, "How sleepy are you?", "How tense do you feel?", "How alert do you feel?", etc. It felt strange to check in with myself on those points many times a day. In everyday life, moods and feelings have a way of sliding by unnoticed or forgotten. All these snapshots would probably make good, surprising reading.
At least in young or middle-aged adults under dim lighting, saliva samples can be used to measure body levels of the hormone melatonin. Melatonin derives from tryptophan, the amino acid in turkey that can make you sleepy. We spit into little plastic tubes hundreds of times. I won Most Improved Spitter and got to wear a polka dot jersey.
Stage 5: eating. We ate 6 meals per day! Experimental control dictated that we neither lose nor gain weight during the study. Thus, our calories were counted and we were given points with which to order food from a menu. For weighing 172 pounds, I was awarded six points, which meant that I had the special privileges of ordering Healthy Choice Macaroni and Cheese and Fettuccini Alfredo with Chicken. The others had to settle for lowly manicotti and Handi-Snacks. Therefore, I won the eating stage.
Stage 6: staying sane. I won't lie. Living with the same people for 11 days in a small, dim basement and being poked and prodded for science made for an intense experience. For diversions, TV and internet were out of the question because of the likelihood that a clock somewhere would contaminate our virgin, timeless brains. So, Balderdash and Scattergories came to the rescue. These games became creative and social outlets that probably made the difference between an intense, interesting experience and an experience that would have changed me. Vive Mattel! Vive Hasbro!
The Finish Line
One morning, the lab staff woke us up like always, took off our electrodes so we could shower, fed us, took our saliva, and then pretended they were about to put our electrodes back on. Just as they got started, the technician in charge said, "Okay guys, it's over. Get the heck out of here!" I had expected the end to come out of the blue like that, but why the bluff? Why pretend there's more study to come if there isn't? Would our last saliva sample have been flawed if we had known it was the last? Sometimes, science is drol like that.
We emerged from dimness in time to see Lance ride down his capstone 7th Tour win. While he was riding around Les Champs Elysées, I was getting over all the world's dazzling light and color, teaching my fingers to type again, and picking collodion out of my hair. I'm still working on that. So sleeping turns out to be a lot less sensational than cycling, but the victory prize wasn't bad: €987.