Copernicus and Arrhenius: Physics Then and Physics Today

There was a really interesting article in Physics Today this past October on the parallels between the slow acceptance of the idea of anthropogenic climate change and of the idea that the earth circles the sun.

Author Steven Sherwood writes that:

“Many who are unwilling to accept the full brunt of greenhouse warming have embraced a more comforting compromise reminiscent of the Tychonic system*: that CO2 has some role in climate but its importance is being exaggerated. But accepting a nonzero warming effect puts one on a slippery slope: Once acknowledged, the effect must be quantified, and every legitimate method for doing so yields a significant magnitude. As the evidence sinks in, we can expect a continued, if slow, drift to full acceptance. It took both Copernicanism and greenhouse warming roughly a century to go from initial proposal to broad acceptance by the relevant scientific communities. It remains to be seen how long it will take greenhouse warming to achieve a clear public consensus; one hopes it will not take another century.”

A really important point is that what Sherwood is talking about here is not about acceptance of anthropogenic greenhouse warming within the scientific community — that acceptance has already happened — but amongst the general public. Of course, the analogy with Copernicus is still a good one, because it did take some time for understanding of the greenhouse idea to really take hold within the scientific community. Indeed, it has only been in the last year that the American Physical Society (APS) has considered climate change a central-enough topic to deem it worthy to start a climate change ‘topical group’. (The APS topical groups are formal, structured discussion groups that have to be approved by APS. Note for those that might think politics might have played a role in slowing things down: this most certainly isn’t the case. The APS leadership is simply very conservative about what is deemed central enough to Physics to approve a topical discussion group; for example, a colleague of mine spent several years trying to convince APS to support such a group on Quantum Information. That climate change is now an APS focus group topic makes a strong statement, but not a political one: it simply reflects the maturity of the field. Members of APS that are interested in climate should consider joining; there are bound to be some very interesting discussions in areas such as radiative transfer and atmospheric dynamics.)

Sherwood’s article deserves to be widely read. It is freely available on the Physics Today web site.

For more on the history of of the development of the greenhouse idea within the physics community, our own Ray Pierrehumbert’s article in Physics Today (pdf) is also a very worthwhile read.

*Tycho accepted the evidence that the other planets orbit the sun, but tried to come up with a way to still keep the sun orbiting the earth.

107 comments on this post.
  1. MARodger:

    Bradley J.Dibble @99
    I do agree that the population at large are the most important part of ‘overcoming the hurdles we presently face’ (there being no easy technoligical fix available in time). And getting folk properly on side is not at all easy & some of the required change will not be painless (which is why they need to be on-side to making the required changes easier, more desirable, a ‘must-do’ activity.)

    This makes the analogy with Galileo less pertanent. In Galileo’s day, the population that mattered were the clergy & nobles. Getting the majority of them to agree in a timely fashion wasn’t an issue for Galileo. Indeed Galileo did actually “abjure, curse & detest” his heliocentric theory (okay, under pain of death) and there is no evidence to supports the myth of his muttering protests. The upshot was, his heliocentricity went silent.

    I have been meeting the resistance within the population for the best part of two decades. The only death threats I can remember were from me (e.g. airliners should have health warnings “Flying this areoplane is gonna kill people”) so I remain far from silent.

    My own opinion of why the resistance to accepting AGW is so long-lived yields a number of ideas.
    (i) The initial position of folk when first confronted with Global Warming is sceptical.
    (ii) Politicians and the media are still collectively too sceptical (& popularity-seeking) to act robustly. (I see in (i) & (ii) a real feedback loop that will cause climate change as strongly as any climatological feedback loop.)
    (iii) Words like ‘very certain’ are a kiss of death to an unwelcome scientific argument.
    (iv) Opinion-formers can (and do) use single emeritus porfessors of climatology (who must be better informed than they ever could be) to justify a continued skeptical viewpoint.
    (v) The unprecidented level of disaster that world civilisation faces is not yet evident & probably won’t be until it is too late.

  2. Hank Roberts:

    vi) The survivors write the history. Every “unprecedented disaster” in the past — regardless of what was lost — came ’round to us, here, now. Few mourn what was gone before they were born — shifting baselines.

  3. ferd berple:

    Here is a series of plots of Argo data made with the Global Argo Marine Atlas Viewer. There is a sample plot showing how to use the viewer. Dbar units translate roughly into meters.

    The viewer and instructions are available on the Argo web-site.

  4. Alvin:

    Just a comment on 20/21 (Jay Mulberry). What evidence is there that most Australians don’t believe in evolution? This is an incredibly general statement and one that, as an Australian, I would consider to be untrue. The great majority of Australians certainly seem to accept evolution and it is never challenged in the media or by politicians as we repeatedly see in the US.

  5. BertO:

    Planetary orbits are directly observable at the level of human scale. Climate change occurs over vast time periods. Orbital models could be questioned, tested and discarded at will…that is, when it finally became acceptable to question and test. Conclusions regarding climate change are largely the result of modeling and are not testable in the same way. Many AGW deniers hang their hats on the idea that models are really “only theories” (like evolution?) and are, therefore, essentially useless. When the science is too far removed from the understanding of the common man then it’s really no better than magic.

  6. Ray Ladbury:

    Most recent studies I’ve seen put Aussie belief in evolution or “guided” evolution at >70%. Americans? That’s another matter–roughly 57% morons and getting stupider.

  7. Bernard J.:

    It is probably apposite, given Sherwood’s comparison of Copernicus with Arrhenius and the fact that Mr Monckton is trying to observe (with incorrect orders of magnitude) a site-viewing landmark over at Watts Wrong With That, to suggest that WWWT is to Arrhenius what the Association for Biblical Astronomy is to Copernicus.

    Just one f’rinstance… Watts and his followers say (when they can actually get their stories straight) that there is no noteworthy AGW: the ABA says that the Earth does not move through space.

    As an aside, it would be very interesting to figure out what overlap there is between the 20% of adult USAdians that thinks that the sun revolves around the Earth, and those that believe that thousands of professional physicists and climatologists are incompetent and/or engaging in a conspiracy to defraud the lay populace.