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.
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.

The ancient four elements--air, fire, water, earth--are in fact four
states. Solid, liquid, gas and plasma.

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.

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 Promethius. 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.