Mathematicians and scientists have long been painfully aware that their supposed certainties on paper too often fail to measure up to what actually transpires in reality. Mathematicians haven’t forgotten this; it’s scientists who may want to refresh their memories about the vast extent of what is unknown, unknowable, and unpredictable in all disciplines.
An excellent case in point is a set of equations regarded as perhaps insoluble, but yet also important enough for the Clay Mathematics Institute to have offered a $1 million prize for anyone submitting a solution. The Navier-Stokes equations are what science employs to make heads or tails of the chaos that is turbulence in air or water.
They’ve been solved in two ethereal and infinitely thin dimensions; their solution in the real, three dimensional, corporeal world is one of the Millennial Prize's “holy grail” listings. Someone stepping forward and explaining it all, becoming an instant millionaire in the process, might not happen tomorrow though. Werner Heisenberg, co-discoverer of mind-bogglingly difficult quantum mechanics, decades ago remarked that these equations might almost stump God Himself.
It’s just these intractable formulae however that are indispensable to crafting models that make putative sense of the chaos of weather and climate. If there is no solution, that would certainly impinge negatively on our assuredness in making long-term predictions with any confidence.
It may turn out that those kinds of forecasts are indeed impossible after all. Edward Lorenz, American mathematician and meteorologist, five decades ago put this concept into the public consciousness when he published papers in the Journal of Atmospheric Sciences in 1960s. His "Butterfly Effect," the now oft-referenced thesis that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil last year can result in a tornado in Texas next year, is indicative of the insurmountable problems indelibly stamped into the science of climate prediction.
Declaring with seeming certainty that our planetary climate will be hotter, colder, wetter, or drier a hundred or two hundred years from now depends on these very obdurate equations giving out clear and unambiguous answers. Unfortunately, they won’t comply.
Dr. Paul Williams, an esteemed fellow of the Royal Society and professor of atmospheric science, is a world-class expert on air turbulence, and a mainstream proponent of current “climate change” theory himself. He’s declared nonetheless that “the secrets of the climate system are locked away in the Navier-Stokes equations, but they’re too complex to be solved directly.” He’s right, too.
Instead of real, precise and unadulterated answers to what the weather will be like centuries from now, based on more CO2, less CO2, and/or either more or less of anything else, what stands for accurate and clear-cut forecasting is arrived at instead by plugging in millions of lines of code into computers and attempting end-runs around equations researchers know they can’t solve. In the simplest terms, even the slightest infinitesimal input variation in these computer what-if scenarios at the start will result in the most lopsided results at end.
That state of affairs makes it hardly plausible that a universe which prohibits perfect spheres should give rise to a fallible human race somehow capable of initializing absolutely flawless data to avoid equations they’re not yet capable of solving.
Astronomers found themselves in the same quandary for millennia, making do with absurdly complicated epicycles before the age of Copernicus and Kepler’s Laws and Newton’s gravitational constant. Such rickety and herky-jerky mathematics did successfully produce the answers that inquisitors and Church doctors wanted, but alas, the Earth still orbits the Sun and not the other way around, no matter what the math supposedly said.
And, concerning the Sun, there is no greater engine of climate more guaranteed to be absolutely impossible to predict, with whatever set of equations. The Sun's energy varies some 0.1 percent over just 11-year sunspot cycles.
However, this “mildly variable star” can throw far more damaging tantrums our way. When it catches cold — as it did between 1300 and 1850 — it produces “Little Ice Ages.” The last one sent tens of millions to their deaths owing to starvation, cold, and disease. There have been innumerable deviations in the Sun’s output over the eons; there are many, many more to come.
That one slippery input datum alone — among uncounted and unknown variables — is enough to cause any supposed prediction of climate in 2,100 AD to be recorded where it belongs: the circular filing cabinet.
The sane and prudent policy would be to solve the Navier-Stokes equations not after but before we close down factories, obliterate industries, ban barbecuing, turn our civilization upside-down, and drain our descendants’ college funds for “carbon taxes” to send abroad and into the coffers of nations which consider our very way of life to be anathema.
That’s called looking before leaping.
David Nabhan is a science writer, the author of "Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology" (2017) and three previous books on earthquakes. Nabhan is also a science fiction writer ("Pilots of Borealis," 2015) and the author of many scores of newspaper and magazine op-eds. Nabhan has been featured on television and talk radio all over the world. His website is www.earthquakepredictors.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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