ScienceWise - Sep/Oct 2007

The Editor's Corner -

The Infinite Atmosphere Theory

During a total lunar eclipse, the moon can turn a deep coppery red at totality. In the middle ages, this “blood moon” was seen as an omen of disaster. Of course in more enlightened times we have a far better explanation for the reddening of the lunar disc at totality. We understand it in terms of atmospheric lensing and scattering of the blue component of sunlight by the dust and gasses in the air. It’s all about the earth’s atmosphere and nothing to do with prophesy.

As science makes more and more progress towards understanding natural things like the earth’s atmosphere, I think there’s a tendency to forget the awesome power that they posses. It’s almost as though they become specimens in jars, understood, catalogued and for the most part, totally harmless. This is largely how we’ve treated the atmosphere over the last century. Ten kilometres up multiplied the surface area of the earth makes a gargantuan volume of air. At the human scale, essentially an infinite volume. So if you pour a few cubic metres of this or that into it, the effect is a few divided by infinity - in other words absolutely nothing at all. The problem with this arithmetic is of course that the number of humans on the planet is also becoming quasi-infinite, and as any good mathematician will tell you, infinity over infinity is an undefined quantity.

I don’t think there’s a simple answer to climate change but what I am sure of is that science and technology will have to play a central role in both fully understanding the problem and creating appropriate solutions. It would be terrible to see superstition proved right about the “blood moon” - even though it would be for all the wrong reasons. And perhaps equally terrible to see our response to the situation driven by modern superstitions rather than well grounded scientific reasoning.

Dr Tim Wetherell - ScienceWise Editor

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