Monday, 6 June 2011

Post-Promethian Society

Burning stuff has been a pretty important part of humanity for a while now. Fire has been around in nature a long time, and we have to say that it was discovered and harnessed by humans rather than invented. According to Greek myth, Prometheus stole it from the gods to give to man. Other mythologies share this theme of theft

Perhaps in the distant future there will be myths of how the god Watt stole coal from the ground and turned it into thick air, or how divine Einstein found electricity in rays of sunlight. Wikipedia mentions the hero Mātariśvan in the Rig Veda (3:9.5), recovering fire, which had been hidden from mankind. In Cherokee myths and those of some Pacific Northwest tribes, fire was variously stolen, or almost stolen but ultimately handed over to humans by Possum, Buzzard, Grandmother Spider with her web, Coyote, Beaver or Dog while among some Yukon First Nations people, Crow stole fire from a volcano in the middle of the water. According to the Creek Indians, Rabbit stole fire from the Weasels.

It sounds far-fetched, but remember the ancient four elements—fire, air, water, earth—are in fact four states. Plasma, gas, liquid and solid, liquid.

I watched the Day After Tomorrow the day before yesterday. The basic plot is that drastic climate change happens, but not by a couple of degrees over a few score years, but by scores of degrees over a couple of days. The science is hardly that rigid. It seems that changes in ocean currents cause a massive hurricane-like storm system over the northern hemisphere. I suppose that much is possible, although it's unlikely as hurricanes hardly ever happen high in the arctic, possibly
due to the Coriolis effect, which is largest in the tropics and sub-tropics.

The eyes of these storms brought down cold air from the troposphere, where the temperatures are very low, and froze everything in sight. I think the problem with this is that temperatures are very low in the troposphere because pressures are very low. We'll find out more of this when we consider how heat pumps work, but basically as the pressure drops, the temperature drops and as the pressure rises the temperature rises. You can feel this with a bicycle pump. Generally a rise of 100 metres will lead to a drop of one degree (although less if the air is humid) and a fall of 100 metres will lead to an increase of one degree. This causes the Foehn effect in alpine climates, where humid wind blows up one side of an alp, dropping in temperature slowly and shedding its humidity as rain. It then heads down the other side of the alp dry, gaining temperature as it falls leading to a very hot day in the valley on the other side.

If the eyes of these storms were making holes in the atmosphere where there was no air at all, then there would have been no pressure either, and rather than freeaing, people would probably have boiled, and their eyes popped out. However, I digress from Prometheus. That's sounding more like Tantalus.

I suppose the movie was trying to advocate action against global warming, although a lot of the time it felt like it was just nostalgia for those disaster movies of the 80's. The biggest problem was the reaction to this storm, which was for them to burn as much as they could. The hero was holed up in a library with his septicemic girlfriend, an aging gentleman of the road and a couple of librarians,
and their solution was to start burning books. It would have been much more sensible for them to line the books around the walls for more insulation and to reduce the size of the room, and start burning the furniture and shelves, or the guy who was clutching the bible. The only allusion to this was the gentleman of the road tearing bits out of a book and stuffing them in his clothes. The hero, his two sidekicks and the romantic adversary were all supposed to be academic decathletes, but the bum seemed to know more about thermodynamics than they did, and more than the people who made the movie for that matter.

So the moral of the story was... global warming's coming but you'll be OK if you burn lots of stuff.