A Suggested Title Change
The Mommy Brain

What I'm Reading While I Stay Out of the Cold

It's 7 degrees Fahrenheit right now. When I looked at the thermometer a few minutes ago, I thought That's not so bad. because yesterday when I got up the thermometer read zero. At this time last year, I was enjoying the eucalyptus-scented humidity of the Australian summer in Brisbane, wondering why the heck I live in North America. (Why do I live here, anyway?) It's pretty out there, even if it's unbearably cold. The snow has the tracks of foraging deer and the sun will shortly rise behind the bare winter trees. The snow pack gives a blue cast to the reflected light. But, really, this place is too cold for human habitation. Why do I live here? (Something to do with commuting distance to the Flatiron Building, as I recall; that, and a really good school district.)

A few days ago, Greg Benford emailed me an editorial he'd written (in collaboration with Martin Hoffert) that I just got around to reading yesterday. Michael Crichton made the mistake of citing a paper on which Benford was an author in dismissing evidence for global warming and climate change. Crichton is a deeply conservative writer in the sense that he invokes interesting ideas to fuel the plots of his books and at the end, a volcano goes off or something, burying the interesting idea under a lava flow, returning everything to the status quo, so that we don't have to continue to think about the idea after the book ends. Whatever it was has been dispensed with. As a reader, I found this deeply irritating in Congo. Then, much later, when reading up on the possibility of extinct species cloning, I found it irritating in that nearly every reporter writing about the subject invoked Jurassic Park and many seemed to feel that they already knew why extinct species cloning was a bad idea, because Michael Crichton had already explained it to them. So I admit to a certain satisfaction at the very idea of Benford setting Crichton straight:

Fear of reason

Despite State of Fear's long bibliography, Crichton seems to have actually read only secondary sources, and does not understand them. He writes that our paper "concluded that there is no known technology that will enable us to halt the rise of carbon dioxide in the 21st century." But we didn't say that. Instead, we outlined plenty of technologies that must be further developed to stop a probable several-degree rise in global temperatures. We called for a Manhattan Project-style effort to explore technologies we already have.

Perhaps because he wanted a dramatic, contrarian theme, Crichton did not let facts get in the way. For example, he argues in "State of Fear" that our oceans are not warming. This is important because, as Arthur Clarke reminded us, it makes little sense to call our planet "Earth" when 70 percent of its surface is ocean. Not only are the oceans warming at the surface, there is well-documented and pronounced subsurface warming and heat storage as predicted 20 years ago and consistent with atmosphere and ocean climate models.

He's wrong, too, when he claims that a simple fact that cities are warmer than countryside, leading to a "heat island effect" has been ignored in climate temperature data taken near cities. He misleads his readers when he has his characters say that temperatures measured by Earth satellites are inconsistent with global warming derived from thermometers on land. To "document" his claims, Crichton shows many plots downloaded from the NASA/GISS Web site but he misrepresents the data.

Further, he invokes the pseudo-sciences of eugenics and Lysenkoism (in the former Soviet Union) as examples of mainstream scientists being led astray. But these were politically driven ideologies. They have more in common with the voodoo science of the climate contrarians than the dominant view of atmospheric scientists and geophysicists. In keeping with many relevant professional societies, like the American Geophysical Union, we are convinced that the fossil fuel greenhouse is already here, and has the potential to vastly transform terrestrial climate for millennia to come.

To believe Crichton and company, you have to believe that there's a vast conspiracy involving the editors of Science, Nature, Scientific American and some dozen other peer-reviewed journals to exclude and reject climate skeptics papers. The skeptics mainly publish books and on Web sites, avoiding journals.

The problem with Crichton, other than that he blows the endings of his books, is that reporters all read him (or at least all flock to see movies based on his books). Any number of news stories will be colored by his conspiracy theories about global warming.

Because Benford is an sf writer, this is no ordinary smack-down of the sf writer by the scientist. And in a key sense, Crichton isn't an sf writer, but rather a writer of technothrillers, which have different protocols for integrating science into the narrative. Benford is holding him to hard-sf standards because Crichton invokes them by citing scientific sources. So Benford appears here not just as a scientist but also as a writer of hard sf presenting its environmentalist face: The cold equations support the idea of global warming and suggest that we should do something about it.

Another interesting item I encountered yesterday was a passage from Nick Gever's interview with Terry Bisson in which Terry talks about his story "Scout's Honor":

[Gevers:] Another recent tale, "Scout's Honor" (Sci Fiction, January 2004), is an extremely moving account of an anthropologist venturing back in time and communing with Neanderthals. What, specifically, prompted your thinking about the possible reasons the Neanderthals died out?

Bisson: Don't we all think about that? The story of human evolution, our planetary diaspora, the emergence of consciousness in organic life, is the greatest story in the universe, as far as I know. Certainly Sawyer, Bear, Auel, Golding would agree. My favorite book on the subject is The Dance of the Tiger by Bjorn Kurten, a Norwegian anthropologist. I am continually using his ideas. The anthropologist in my story, by the way, was based on Paul Park's brilliant autistic sister, Jesse. It occurred to me that she might understand our cousins better than any of us.

What what? The protagonist was modeled on Jesse Park? I immediately went back and reread the story. Yup, the narrative clues are there that our hero is no ordinary nerd.