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Moment of full eclipse near Saint Louis, Missouri

Some Science Seems Easier to Accept

You’d be amazed at the number of people who accepted the science that predicted an eclipse would happen when and where it did. Everybody knew the formula would work. No one questioned the math calculations and understanding of physics that went into knowing just when and where it would take place.

Why were they so ready to believe the math would be right, even if they didn’t understand just how?

Eclipse prediction seems to be non-controversial. Celestial bodies will swirl, held together by gravity, moving by momentum, in relation to one another, in a predictable way. And yet this understanding was reached by trial and error, theorizing and testing over time. Science. It took a while to get right. But once there, it was available to all. An established scientific fact.

The weather is another thing scientists have gotten better at predicting. It’s astonishing how chaos math and its exponential implications allow you to predict with amazing accuracy the weather five minutes from now, with pretty fair accuracy in a day, still somewhere near the mark for up to about five days , but after that the forces and possibilities increase the difficulty until supercomputers working in parallel can’t help you nail it down. Nonetheless, this science is highly useful — to the point where IBM paid more than $2 billion to buy because the data was so valuable. That’s science we also believe in.

It’s funny about this prediction stuff. It isn’t always accurate, but sometimes it’s amazingly close, like the trajectory to get a man to the moon and back. Except for the fringe that still insists it didn’t happen, most of us are pretty impressed with the results of that sort of physics and math, whether or not we understand them on the level it takes to work out all the fine details.So what is it about climate change that causes half the United States to discount the science, to say it’s not valid or proven or taken in proper perspective? People as smart as Scott Adams buy into some alternate narrative, like this prediction isn’t really going to come true.

People may be selective about which science to believe because some stronger imperative is at work, like surviving until tomorrow. Whether or not an eclipse occurs is of little consequence. I was in LA during the actual event, and people there saw a 2/3 occultation, which is kind of a lot, but I didn’t even look up. I saw a full eclipse on Mount Desert Island in 1963, when I was 10 years old. And if you’ve seen one eclipse, you’ve seen them all.

I’m sure when the final tally is in, this will be the most photographed eclipse in history. But I’ll leave it to the scientists to get the really great photos of the actual eclipse. One of my kids happened to be near Saint Louis during the event, and sent a great picture of the dark landscape during full. That I liked.

But during the event itself, I was hard pressed to find online a real-time graphic of where the full umbra was at any given moment. There were stories, hours old, that told where to expect it, but no live simulation of the actual blob of fullness on a map. I did a rough (but still scientific) calculation, and figured about the moment when Saint Louis would be under, and missed but only by a few minutes.

When I try to assess the likelihood that the science on climate change is accurate, even beyond the opinion of 99% of people whose job it is to understand these things in detail, I add up a few things:

  • The fact that the oxygen we breathe was itself manufactured out of other chemicals by cyanobacteria and early plants that began their work more than two billion years ago, producing tiny amounts at first and then in gallops as they multiplied in favorable circumstances, sunlight and water, and, minute creatures that they were, changed the entire atmosphere to make it breathable for microscopic animals at first and then larger ones and finally us. The hubris to think that we aren’t changing the atmosphere is delusional.

I add all these personal tests, assays, to the body of knowledge scientists have accumulated on the subject, and I conclude: about right. These guys have figured it out, and even have a fairly good forecast of the trajectory of change. Why would I not believe them?

Which would bring me to the next step. Let’s accept the scientific facts and get on with fixing things because — as climate scientists have copiously pointed out — we don’t have a lot of time.

The strength of humanity has been to make use of science, from selective breeding to the lever to the pulley to the lens to computers and telecommunications, in order to better our condition. And many people remain concerned about the balance between individual initiative and collective action. But our survival as a species depends on our ability to assemble a higher organism out of the lot of us, to act as one. If I had to bet on it, I’d say the chances of success don’t look that great right now.

One social behavior makes me think it might be possible to pull off: driving. We more or less manage to muddle through the incredible complexities of working it out with each other on the highways, not always, but most of the time. There is a small set of rules we mostly know, and we operate according to local norms and expectations. So, we can take collective action with individual initiatives and get a 99% success rate (measured in live people delivered to destinations).

Perhaps if we all accept the science on climate change, we can muddle through what will likely be the eye of the needle for the human race.

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Technology Analyst

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