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How does a reductionist such as myself teach about such a holistic, systems-based topic as climate change?

1) The Sun heats the Earth with a mixture of visible and invisible radiation.

2) The Earth radiates that thermal energy back to space, reaching a balance called thermal equilibrium. Energy in equals energy out.

3) Because the Earth is cooler than the Sun, the radiation signature of the Earth is much cooler than that of the Sun. The Earth radiates in the infrared.


4) Some gases in the atmosphere that are transparent to visible light (carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane, and others) are not transparent to infrared.

5) The infrared radiated by the Earth has a chance of being captured by these gases. Some will be re-radiated back into space, but some will be re-radiated back toward the Earth.

6) The part that is re-radiated back to Earth drives up our thermal equilibrium temperature.

7) The more of these gases in the atmosphere, the greater the chance of any bit of infrared energy being captured and sent back to Earth.

Now we are prepared to talk about the complex ways that systems work together. Water vapor is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but you can only get so much water vapor to stay in the air. It is temperature-dependent, and so the water vapor tends to cycle. Water vapor levels can’t runaway, unless temperature does so first. But there is no similar limit on carbon dioxide in the air. Therefore, a little increase in temperature due to carbon dioxide can lead to more water vapor, leading to higher temperatures still. Carbon dioxide is the trigger.

Carbon dioxide cycles naturally. Trees and other plants eat it, combining it with the hydrogen in water to make sugar. They release oxygen as a waste gas in the process. Plants of course use some of this sugar for their own needs, so really the sugar is more of a banking system for the plant, and some of the carbon dioxide will be released by the plant when it uses the energy in the sugar for life processes. However, plants take in more carbon dioxide than they release.

We eat the sugars made by the plants. We combine them with the waste oxygen, producing once again water and carbon dioxide. So eating, burning, or otherwise using sugars from plants doesn’t imbalance the carbon dioxide, since it came from the air quite recently. It’s ok to breathe!

But remember that trees and other plants are carbon sinks. They take in more carbon dioxide than they release, unless they are eaten. But not all trees are eaten. Some change to coal.

The coal in the ground is the result of millions of years’ worth of carbon sinks. These trees and other plants stored up carbon, ton after ton after ton. They fell into swamps and weren’t eaten by anything. Instead, the material changed. The hydrogen and oxygen were slowly squeezed out, leaving nothing but carbon behind. That carbon is full of energy, the energy stored by the plants in the first place. When we burn that coal, we’re releasing ancient sunlight. But we’re also releasing carbon dioxide into the air that had been buried for hundreds of millions of years. The Earth can’t absorb so much carbon so quickly.

Climate change is always happening, and there’s no reason to suspect that the Earth will continue to have a climate amenable to our species (and particularly our civilization) for any amount of time. However, we are driving the climate by pumping ancient carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. It’s as if we’re driving toward a cliff with our foot on the accelerator. Yes, it may be true that the cliff face is slowly eroding away, anyhow, so even if we stand still the cliff will eventually erode away from below us. But driving fast toward the cliff doesn’t in any way help!

The Earth may well adjust to this extra carbon dioxide. After all, it was carbon dioxide once before. The levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have changed over time, and will continue to change. Global warming may drastically change the Earth, and the change will likely drive many species to extinction. But species are always going extinct as climate changes. Life, though it may look very different, will adapt. Something will survive.

But can we? That’s the real question. As coastlines flood and agricultural patterns change, can our civilization survive rapid climate change? It’s an experiment we’ve never run before. Note that it will happen, eventually, no matter what we do. Climate will change, whether we drive it or not. So really there are at least two things we have to do.

1) Take our foot off the accelerator. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will increase global temperatures. How much? Nobody really knows. Maybe we’ll get lucky and maybe we won’t. But isn’t it silly to keep driving?

2) Learn, learn, learn. The Earth (that good mother) will kill us. Eventually. Volcanic activity. The next ice age. Even an asteroid impact. Climate cannot and will not stay just where we humans want it to. If we don’t learn about the Earth and all that can and has gone wrong, we are doomed. We have to keep learning.

But why must we survive? What’s so special about our one species? We are special. We are different. We are worth more than cows or chimpanzees or (yes, I have to say it) even sea turtles. Because we can learn. Because we can experience the wonder of this universe that created us. We are a way for the universe to know itself.

Elephant seals demonstrate that there are no demonstrations. The natural world is not where we find meaning.

So what good is it?

You are a product of this universe. You, with the power to think, to reason, to decide for yourself. Male elephant seals have no choice. They must follow their instincts. They must fight and die, or else perish alone. But nature flubbed up when it created us.

We can juke the game. We can find joy in other things – creating art, singing songs, falling in love, climbing a tree, reading a poem to a child.

And we can find joy in something else. We can find rapture in learning about this exquisite mess of a universe. We can learn about the cruel reality of elephant seal life – and we can call it what it is, wasteful and stupid.

But we can learn, too, of the intricacies of cell division. We can discover the mathematical precision of the periodic table, a bouncing tennis ball, a leaf floating to the ground. We can contemplate time and space, the past and the future, and wonder from where might it all have come.

We can marvel at the stars, (Jim reckoned the moon could a laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it) and realize it was from there that we came, the elements of our bodies formed in the chaos of stellar death. We can wonder what it would be like to travel to those stars, how we might get there, whom we might meet.

We can look back at our own history and stare wide-eyed at the incredible set of unpredictable contingencies that made us who and what we are. We are incredible, an unrepeatable, fragile accident. We are one of the things the universe can make.

The universe is wonderful, and it is pointless. But the universe made us. And we make the point.

That’s what good it is.

From something as totally meaningless, yet deeply and personally painful, as a lost football game to something full of real misery, wanton cruelty, and utter waste.

Elephant seals.

Male elephant seals are repugnant. There’s simply no other way to put it. They’re grotesquely fat, dirty, and often covered in blood and scars. Male elephant seals are polygamous. They gather as many females as they possibly can, mate with them, and fight off any other male who comes anywhere near. They have vicious teeth and use them to inflict horrible wounds on each other. The males are so eager to fight off any other male who might come near that they often crush to death the pups, the very creatures they’re trying to create with their profligate mating.

elephant seals

According to Bryan Sykes in Adam’s Curse, only 4% of the elephant seal males have 80% of the sex, and the majority of elephant seal males have no sex at all. Meaning they don’t reproduce at all. Meaning they are an evolutionary dead end.

Sykes makes the point that this is evolution at its most wasteful and inefficient. Huge amounts of food go into building these enormous male elephant seal bodies, most of which will never accomplish their one goal, reproduction. They fight each other for every possible mate, even killing their own offspring in the process. Why? Because that’s what their fathers did, and the biggest, meanest, most jealous elephant seals were the ones that passed on their genes. What difference does it make if I crush a few pups? I’ve made lots, and better to kill three or four of my own than allow even one to carry his genes. I can make more, once I’ve gotten rid of him.

We sometimes hear about the efficiency of nature, or, more poetically, Nature’s Way. Don’t believe it! Evolution has no plan. Nature is horribly inefficient, profligately wasteful. There is no gentle hand guiding all of creation, there is no all-knowing life force. There is only cause and effect, ruthless and unfeeling when it needs to be, yet also able to create a flower or a butterfly, if such things serve. Stare evolution straight in the eye and see it for what it is.

Now, once you’ve done that, don’t go and blow your brains out. Read my next post instead.

OK here it comes. I’m a . . .

Bengals fan.

There. I said it. Feel free to pile on the derision.

Today, September 13, 2009, will forever on be known as “The Tip.” This moniker will distinguish the day from:

“The Drop” : Lewis Billups had the interception in his hands just moments before Montana finds Taylor for the winning touchdown in Super Bowl 23.

“The Call” Somehow Coach Sam Wyche manages to not run the clock out with only 6 seconds left, and on the final play Montana beat us again.

“The Twist” Former Bengal Kimo Van Ohlhofen (aka the prince of darkness) went after Carson Palmer’s knee on Palmer’s first pass of a 2005 playoff game, destroying the knee and wrecking the Bengals’ season.

“The Snap” After scoring a touchdown in the final seconds against Denver on Christmas Eve, the Bungles botch the extra point snap and lose 24-23, costing themselves a playoff spot.

And dozens of others, of course, too numerous to mention. What happened today (and I won’t go into it, the memory is still too green. If you want to know, go to or something) just adds to my conviction that in fact there is a god, and I’ve really pissed her off.

OK, football is a deeply meaningless thing. Perhaps the meaninglessness makes it worse, because I’m convinced, somewhere in my deep, dark recessed psyche, that by daring to spend precious time watching such a deeply meaningless spectacle, I encourage the universe to punish me. I should be writing, or earning money somehow, or how about playing with my daughters? There’s a thought. And so the guilt and angst I feel at watching the game is matched only by the pain that usually comes with the final outcome.

Why not just root for some other team, one not so cursed under a bad star? Only those not afflicted with my special version of sports cutting could possibly understand the futility of such a thought. A Bengal fan I am, and a Bengal fan I must remain.

We sometimes meet, we pitiful creatures. It usually happens accidentally. We’re unlikely to be spotted wearing our team insignia. It’s not that we don’t own the stuff. We just keep it hidden in a secret, shameful place, bringing it out only on days like this, the season opener, to don it for a few hopeful hours until reality once again strikes.

When we do discover one another, an instant bond is formed.

“Bengal fan?”

“Yeah, Bengal fan.”

“Oh. Me, too. Ouch.”

That’s all we need, and we’re connected, cutting across lines of race, creed, and political affiliation. We’re Bengal fans. Ouch.

I look for meaning in the meaningless losses. I try to grow. I’m growing an awful lot, being a fan of this team. I remember the pain much more than the joy. Essex Johnson losing his 1000 yard rushing season by losing 3 yards on the last carry of the year. The Bengals missing the playoffs again, and again, and again, by the tiniest of margins. The ridiculous losses. The horrendous personnel moves – Akili Smith, Ki-Jana Carter, David Klingler, and on and on and on.

What must it be like to be a fan of some other team, the Steelers, perhaps? Rooting for them would be like rooting for death and taxes, the only things surer than Pittsburgh finishing ahead of the Bengals. Where are the growth opportunities there? So I’ve got something that no Steeler fan will ever have. I’ve got pain. And pain makes you stronger.


I’ll just wait for the lesson of today’s pain to come through.

OK, still waiting.

Still . . .

How ’bout I let you know?


I’m reading and listening to a book called “Adam’s Curse” by Bryan Sykes. It is such a shame that we can’t teach kids about sex, because it is mind-blowing.

OK, before you call the cops, child welfare, and Oprah on me, let me finish. The biology and evolution of sex is one of the most mind-blowing topics I’ve ever encountered. In fact, I’m convinced that this problem of teaching about sex is one of the sticky problems behind teaching evolution the way it should be taught. Maybe if we could talk openly about sex, more people would get it.

Evolution, I mean, not . . . oh, never mind.

Here’s what makes sex so mind-blowing (stop it!).

Why are there two different sexes? If you think about it from an efficiency point of view, it’s quite stupid.

We humans are members of a species that’s pretty much overrun the planet. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone with whom you’re sexually compatible – well, at least genetically. But imagine for a moment you’re a member of a rarer species. Maybe a jaguar.


Jaguars are pretty well spread out in the jungle. Suppose you’re wandering about, looking for food and also a chance to mate. You catch the occasional monkey (hairy but good), but go days without seeing one of your own kind. Wait, there’s one! You go up to your new friend and – whoops, same gender as you. Back to the drawing board.

This will happen roughly 50% of the time. Seems pretty inefficient. Wouldn’t it be better if jaguars were all-purpose and unisex, so that any jaguar could mate with any other? Why this strange division?

(While we’re at it, why have sex at all? Sykes has an answer to this, too, and it might surprise you. Achoo!)

The answer, Sykes reveals, takes us back billions of years, to when we were all just single-celled creatures swimming about in some warm pond. Sex was an advantage, so we searched out the chance to blend our DNA with another’s through nucleus to nucleus sex.

The problem was that the nucleus, with all the juicy DNA we were after, was buried deep in the cell, with lots of cytoplasm in the way. While our nuclear DNA was eager to fuse with our mate’s, the cytoplasm wasn’t so excited about it. In animal cytoplasm are lots of creatures called mitochondria. Mitochondria were once free-living bacteria, but we co-opted them. Now they live in all our cells, and burn fuel using the oxygen we breathe. It’s mitochondria that make the dark meat dark in a Thanksgiving turkey, by the way. But that doesn’t have anything to do with sex.

Except it does, because mitochondria hate sex. It does them no good. They reproduce quite nicely without it, thank you, just splitting down the middle to make two mitochondria where once there was one. But if single-celled creatures start blending their DNA, they’re blending mitochondria, too. And mitochondria don’t like each other.

Whenever two cells come together like this, a war breaks out. The machinery in the cytoplasm of one cell starts destroying the mitochondria of the other, and vice versa. When it’s all over, one cell or the other has won, and only its mitochondria survive.

If it’s an even match, the cell is in big trouble. With few surviving mitochondria, the organism itself is unlikely to survive. So nature stacks the decks. Most sexual single-celled creatures come in two varieties. Sykes called them plus and minus. Plus is bigger, sometimes a lot bigger, and has lots more mitochondria. So that when the two cells have sex, the mitochondria of the plus win, and the minus mitochondria are utterly wiped out.

Since they always lose, anyway, it makes sense for the minus cells to get smaller and smaller. Why waste energy on mitochondria when all you’re going to do is deliver your DNA and die? The result is sex as we know it. Male sperm cells are tiny, with only two or three mitochondria to run the whippy tail. These are destroyed as soon as they go into the egg cell, while the precious DNA slips quietly into the nucleus of the egg, fertilizing it and making a little constitutional test case.

The consequences of this are staggering. Men (the descendents of the minus clan) can make lots and lots of sperm, because they’re so little (the sperm, not the men). Women (the plus descendents) can only make a few eggs. In our species, it’s even worse since pregnancy takes so long. From this split comes such unpleasant male attributes as promiscuity, aggression, and farting in public.

And that’s the mind-blowing stuff I wish we could teach kids. Sex is awesome!

I can teach someone to know the following: “The safe upper limit for atmospheric CO2is no more than 350 ppm.”

One approach to teaching the above is to use it as a starting point. Then we talk about ways to change behaviors in order to get the number down to 350 ppm. We talk about what the world might look like, how we might all make small changes that can add up, and so on.

My approach would be different. I would use the statement itself as a far-distant goal. I would start with wonder. Did you know that a tree is made mostly of air? Did you know that the carbon you’re breathing out right now is the same carbon that was once in a dinosaur’s body? It’s the same carbon that was here (almost all of it) when the Earth first formed? It is carbon that was forged billions of years ago in a dying star, and it’s in you, right now.

Next, I want my learners to know why carbon dioxide in large quantities can change the climate. I want them to understand where carbon dioxide comes from, where it’s going, how it got there in the first place. I want them to understand how carbon dioxide and sunlight interact, and what is sunlight, anyway? I want them to know that plants eat carbon dioxide, that humans breathe out carbon dioxide, and that the weight of carbon dioxide we breathe out every day is greater than the weight of waste we get rid of via, um, other means. That’s right, most of the waste from the food we eat comes out our mouths, not the other end.

I want my learners to be able to answer the critics who say, “well, we humans breathe out all this CO2, maybe we should just stop breathing.” No, because the carbon dioxide we breathe out was carbon in a chicken or a kernel of corn or in a loaf of bread. And that CO2 came right out of the atmosphere when the plant “ate” it. So our eating and breathing just recycles the CO2 that was already there.

But when we burn fossil fuels, we are releasing carbon that has been hidden underground for millions of years. Not only that, but this carbon is incredibly concentrated (which is, of course, what makes coal and oil so good for fuel in the first place).  

What I’ve described is the difference between knowing and understanding. A reductionist approach to this topic promotes understanding. The holistic approach promotes dogma. It is the “four legs good, two legs baaaad” mantra learned by the sheep in Animal Farm. And yet is the holistic approach is certainly the more popular. Why?

I have a hunch, but to say it would make my reductionist stance less popular still. So I’ll remain frustrated. But secretly, I’ll keep teaching the way I know is best.

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
September 2009
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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