The Long View 2006-06-14: Inconstant Constants; Snowball Earth; Ireland & Denmark & Bush

Snowball earth

Snowball earth

The snowball earth hypothesis is an interesting one. It makes some intuitive sense to me as a meta-stable point in a dynamic system, but the devil is in the details here.

Inconstant Constants; Snowball Earth; Ireland & Denmark & Bush


The universe rests on shaky foundations, if we may believe this report:

On April 21 this year new findings were published in Physical Review Letters implying that a dimensionless constant - the ratio between the electron mass and the proton mass - has changed with time...

And shortly measurements will be presented in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society showing that another dimensionless constant, called the fine structure constant, is also varying with time...The changes of both the proton/electron mass ratio and the fine structure constant are very tiny. The fine structure constant has changed by some parts per million during six billions years.

Physicists have been speculating along these lines since the 1930s, so these results are not a complete surprise. (And isn't the idea that the laws of physics were different in the past a point of theosophical doctrine?) I gather that these variations are not enough to upset the anthropic coincidences, so we're safe. For the time being.

* * *

I had thought that Snowball Earth was one of the two robust configurations for the Earth's climate, the other being the climate known to us from history. In other words, if complete glaciation ever occurred, it would be irreversible because the alebedo of the Earth's surface would be so high as to prevent warming by the sun. Now it seems I was misinformed: Snowball Earth has come and gone:

Ancient relatives of today's plants and animals may have survived Earth's oldest, longest winter, when the planet was covered in a deep sheet of ice.

Scientists refer to this chilly period as "Snowball Earth," which first occurred more than two billion years ago. Some computer models suggest the planet was encased in a shell of ice at least a half-mile thick.

...The finding fits with a study last year that concluded bacteria actually caused the first snowball scenario by producing oxygen that destroyed a warm blanket of methane in the atmosphere.

...The research calls into question the severity of Earth's snowball, however. The eukaryotes would not have survived a total, global ice age over a long period of time, according to Buick....However, one proponent of the Snowball Earth theory said that Buick's findings aren't contradictory to the deep-freeze model.

"No matter how thick the ice was, if you had eukaryotes before the freezing, there are still going to be survivors somehow making a living—even in complete darkness," said geologist Mark McMenamin of Mount Holyoke College.

Indeed, Snowball Earth has come and gone more than once:

It seems pretty likely, given the evidence, that a Snowball Earth did take place, somewhere between 600 and 700 million years ago. And that likelihood brings us back to the Cambrian explosion.

Apparently, the glaciation will break up on any planet with enough vulcanism and plate tectonics to keep a carbon-cycle going. So once again, everything is just fine.

* * *

I tried to learn Irish when I was in college; now a student would find more institutional support:

[In Ireland] Irish-language schools and an Irish-language television station are booming in popularity, despite Gaelic's seemingly unpronounceable strings of consonants. And now the language's supporters, who have long bemoaned the impending death of the ancient tongue, have set their sights overseas... This fall, the local branch of the Fulbright program will, for the first time, send native-speaking teaching assistants to American universities.

"Their immediate response was: 'Yes, yes, yes! We can't get enough teachers!' " said Carmel Coyle, director of the Irish Fulbright Commission.

At the risk of sounding like a multi-culti malcontent, I still bristle at the memory of an unsatisfactory meeting I had with a dean in 1975 when I tried to get my school to grant credit for an Irish-language seminar: three students were willing to take it, and a tweedy senior professor was eager to teach it. But no: there was a for-credit seminar on Victorian pornography, but a seminar to teach an actual language was, well, unfashionably substantive.

The seminar went ahead, without credit, and I eventually got to a basic reading level. Then I let the matter lapse. Irish is good evidence for the dictum that the smaller the number of speakers, the harder the language. You must imagine a language with the syntax of French and the grammar of German, except that the verb-subject-object word order is also reminiscent of Hebrew (or so I'm told; I don't know Hebrew). One bright spot is that Irish did a spelling reform around 1950. Irish orthography used to be outrageous; now lit's merely appalling.

* * *

Meanwhile, Irish terrorism wears a wry face:

DUBLIN?Professor Hanlon O'Faolin, once called "mad" at the Royal Irish Academy for attempting to reanimate the traditional body of Celtic folktales with the power of elcectic multilingual puns, is readying his apoplectic Bloomsday Device for activation on June 16. "Yes! Yes, they laughed at me yes but now yes I will make them pay and yes!" O'Faolin wrote in a letters to the Irish Times, promising the destruction of Dublin on the same day portrayed in Joyce's Ulysses.

Is Jasper Fforde now writing for the Onion?

* * *

Could the Bush Administration's fortunes fall any lower, asks Scrappleface:

(2006-06-13) Republican electoral prospects in November appeared bleaker than ever this week after U.S. forces allowed al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to die in their custody and President George Bush's close friend and adviser Karl Rove fanned the flames of conspiracy theories by preventing a special prosecutor from charging him with any wrongdoing in the CIA leak investigation.

I still think the Republican Party is toast this November, but I can't help noticing the frustration in certain segments of the media that reality is getting off message.

* * *

Meanwhile, there is such a thing as justice, at least for Denmark:

[W]hile the export to Islamic countries has gone down, this is more than compensated for by an increase in export to other countries, especially the USA, Senior analyst Joern Thulstrup is quoted as saying: (translated) “It’s an overlooked fact in the Danish debate that Denmark is held in very high regard in the USA, and this is really paying off in regard to business.”

All very well, but the mechanisms of hate-crime prosecution still must be dismantled and the principle repudiated.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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