March freelance writings: Quantum debates, climate vs oceans, and Steve the aurora

In case you missed them, here’s a few new pieces I’ve written and published for Nature, National Geographic, and Hakai magazine last month. Thanks as usual to all of my excellent editors. I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so please check out the whole thing using the links below.

I dedicate this book review to Jim Cushing, the Notre Dame professor who helped me learn about the intricacies of quantum mechanics and philosophy of science. He also showed me about intersections between politics and science. I never really had the opportunity to tell Cushing thank you, as he battled with depression and committed suicide in 2002.


Einstein, Bohr and the war over quantum theory

Ramin Skibba explores a history of unresolved questions beyond the Copenhagen interpretation.

Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein in the late 1920s. (Credit: Emilio Segre Visual Archives/AIP/SPL)

All hell broke loose in physics some 90 years ago. Quantum theory emerged — partly in heated clashes between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. It posed a challenge to the very nature of science, and arguably continues to do so, by severely straining the relationship between theory and the nature of reality. Adam Becker, a science writer and astrophysicist, explores this tangled tale in What Is Real?.

Becker questions the hegemony of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Propounded by Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in the 1920s, this theory holds that physical systems have only probabilities, rather than specific properties, until they’re measured. Becker argues that trying to parse how this interpretation reflects the world we live in is an exercise in opacity. Showing that the evolution of science is affected by historical events — including sociological, cultural, political and economic factors — he explores alternative explanations. Had events played out differently in the 1920s, he asserts, our view of physics might be very different.

Becker lingers on the 1927 Solvay Conference in Brussels, where 29 brilliant scientists gathered to discuss the fledgling quantum theory. Here, the disagreements between Bohr, Einstein and others came to a head. Whereas Bohr proposed that entities like electron) had only probabilities if they weren’t observed, Einstein argued that they had independent reality, prompting his famous claim that “God does not play dice”. Years later, he added a gloss: “What we call science has the sole purpose of determining what is.” Suddenly, scientific realism — the idea that confirmed scientific theories roughly reflect reality — was at stake…

[Read the entire review in Nature magazine, published on 27 March.]


When It Comes to Climate Change, the Ocean Never Forgets

Climate scientists are investigating the extent to which warming, acidification, and other effects can be undone.

If climate change were just a flirtation with disaster—that is, the world acted decisively and cut emissions, and the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide fell tomorrow to preindustrial levels—the planet would respond quickly. Within decades, land temperatures would return to normal. The ocean, however, would bounce back more slowly. Much more slowly.

If greenhouse gas emission plummeted, the surface ocean—the top few hundred meters—would exchange heat with the atmosphere and recover relatively quickly, taking a few decades to improve.* But the deep ocean is like a roast in the oven, remaining hot long after the heat’s been turned off.

“The ocean doesn’t forget,” says Kirsten Zickfeld, a climate scientist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. “If we don’t cut emissions now, there’s a huge legacy in the marine environment”…

[Read the entire article on Hakai magazine, published on 15 March.]


Meet ‘Steve,’ a Totally New Kind of Aurora

Canadian citizen scientist photographers spotted a fleeting type of aurora not seen before, dubbed “Steve,” and scientists have started working out what’s causing them.

While the northern and southern lights have dazzled watchers of the night sky for millennia, vigilant citizen scientist photographers found another type of aurora over the past few years: a short-lived shimmering purple ribbon of plasma. Their intriguing discovery drew the attention of space scientists, who have just begun to study them.

“Dedicated aurora chasers, especially from Alberta, Canada, were out in the middle of the night, looking north and taking beautiful photos. Then farther south they happened to see a faint narrow purple arc as well,” says Elizabeth MacDonald, a space physicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. There’s different physics behind those purple aurora, she says.

The citizen scientists weren’t sure about what they’d seen, so they called the strange aurora structure “Steve.” The name caught on, and MacDonald and her team kept it, proposing the backronym Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement (STEVE)…

[Read the entire article on National Geographic, published on 14 March.]

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