Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Beethoven's Revolutionary Symphony

Beethoven's Sixth Symphony is, on the face of it a nice, non-political piece about the countryside and the simple peasants that dwell in it.

However for Beethoven to compose about the simple peasants of Europe in 1808 was about as politically neutral as John Lennon writing a song about the simple peasants of the Mekong Delta in 1968.

The French Revolutionary Wars had kicked off 14 years earlier and the world had been stunned when the professional armies of Prussia had been beaten hollow by a bunch of farmers hastily issued with muskets. The shock to the orderly system of European monarchies can hardly be underestimated and suddenly every absolute monarch was looking at their peasants in a very different light.

Lets put this into some sort of perspective. In 1791 Prussia was the undisputed military master of Europe. Frederick the Great's army had won the Seven Years War against the odds and now everyone looked to the Germans to see how a real army should be run. Military technology was pretty much the same everywhere, so what made the krauts different was their rigid discipline.

Freddy once said that “If my soldiers were to begin to think, not one would remain in the ranks” and he was probably right. His army was 'professional' in so far as it was paid, but his soldiers were the dregs of society. In his manual on how to fight a campaign he spends rather more time dishing out advice on how to stop your soldiers running away (such as 'don't camp near a forest') as on how to beat the enemy in battle.

Revolutionary France by contrast relied on a levee en mass. A type of early conscription it simply shovelled up a large chunk of the male population and deposited them on the battlefield. With no time for rigid Prussian-style discipline to knock the individuality out of them this should by the usual rules of war have just produce a rabble, but instead the French fought and won. And won again. And again.

The world was aghast and agog. Helped by decent artillery, and a young General called Bonaparte, revolutionary fervour had beaten iron discipline. Worse, these former peasants had not been fighting for their King, but for their cause and a nebulous concept called their 'country'. This was a new and terrifying weapon, now called Nationalism, and like most of the good ideas in the world it also had the effect of making wars longer and bloodier.

And if the King of France couldn't control his peasants, what monarch could? Europe's aristocrats started to notice their peasants, possibly for the first time, and worried.

And so into all this wanders Mr Ludvig van, with his additively simple riffs and serene vision of a rural idyll. What's going on?

Well, there does appear to be a townies vision of the countryside here; a nice place for a walk or picnic with no hint of the hard work, rigid social structure and constant fear of starvation that mark the life of the real peasant.

On the other hand the sheer naivety of the music suggests that Beethoven is trying to invoke something of the 'noble savage' in his subject, the innate wisdom of country folk. A bit cliched perhaps, but Beethoven, a man of the Enlightenment if ever their was one, is probably thinking of a bit more than ways of forecasting the weather and making nice cheese. Perhaps he saw in the country folk a real equality, a true Brotherhood of Man.

And then we come to the fifth movement, the faster bit. Normally interpreted as a thunderstorm, perhaps this is where the peasants really are revolting? The movement begins with a bit of bang all right, but then builds to a swinging and magnificent climax before settling down again into the tranquil last movement. It's beautiful, it's moving, it could even inspire you to take up your pitchfork and stick it into the backside of the nearest toff.


Or maybe Beethoven just liked walking in the fresh air. Who knows?

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Climate Change Deniers in the Institute of Physics

Has the Institute of Physics hatched a cuckoo-in-the-nest in the form of it's Energy Sub-Group?

The other day I named a Peter F Gill as one of the contributors to the submission to the Climategate enquiry who mouths denier propaganda. Another name that has now popped up Terri Jackson (pictured).

Terri was on the Energy Group of the IoP. Like the Judean People's Front and People's Front of Judea, the Energy Group and the Energy Sub-Group are not the same. However Mr Gill, at least, has served on both. Terri though appears to have left the Energy Group under a bit of a cloud. Here's a letter she wrote to the denier blog Climate Realists which gives a flavour of Jackson's views and perhaps explains the problem.

In it we find the standard denier arguments; "the earth has been warmer in the past", "it's water vapour", "humans only contribute 3% of CO2", "Mars is getting warmer" and "it's the sun". In the Skeptical Science catalogue that's a 1, a 2, a 16, a 24 and a 27. In typical denier fashion these are thrown out like machine gun bullets. The intention is clearly to confuse and create the illusion of scientific controversy - the classic tactics of denial whether we are talking about the link between cigarettes and lung cancer or fossil fuels and climate change.

In a recent interview for The Irish News Jackson throws out some more factoids; the alleged removal of the Medieval Warm Period from the Hockey Stick graph, and the old ones about the Vikings in Greenland, sea ice not changed in 30 years and warming observed on other planets - thus adding a 22, a 23, a 25 and a 26. (She seems to be more less doing them in the right order, doesn't she?.

She also refers to barking mad climate change denier Lord Monckton (the chap who gave free advice to the BNP and refused to apologise for calling a Jewish activist a Nazi) as "my colleague".

This is where it gets interesting. Monckton is currently on tour in Austraia and according to Donald Oats, who bravely sat through his garbage in the name of science, some of Monckton's ad libs referred to respectable academic bodies making some "very interesting submissions" to the inquiry. The IoP's contribution is the only evidence that really fits the bill.

Did Monckton know about the evidence in advance? If so, who told him?

The IoP's Energy Group is now free of deniers like Jackson, but Gill remains on the Energy Sub-Group. Whether he is in good company there will not be know until the IoP tells us who makes up this secret committee.

However for a bit of light relief it's amusing to read, given the criticism levelled at the CRU for deleting emails, that the IoP's own electronic correspondence includes the following disclaimer
This email (and attachments) are confidential and intended for the addressee(s) only. If you are not the intended recipient please notify the sender, delete any copies and do not take action in reliance on it…
Pots and kettles?

Friday, 5 March 2010

Have Climate Change deniers infiltrated the Institute of Physics?

Twenty years ago I was a hard working physics undergraduate.

Okay, well, maybe not. As I type this at 9PM on a Friday evening it would probably be more accurate to say that 20 years ago I would now be on my fourth bottle of Newcastle Brown in some some seedy student bar, quenching a thirst generated by having been out of bed for almost eight hours. However I was doing this whilst enrolled on a course entitled Physics with Astrophysics. And I did eventually sober up enough to get my degree. Just.

It was never cool to admit to being a physicist. I did once met a woman who thought that at a pinch 'astrophysics' could be interpreted as 'rocket scientist' and that I would make an interesting addition to the notches on her bedpost, but that was pretty much the exception that proved the rule.

However now even I am starting to have doubts about admitting to which branch of the sciences I studied, and the reason is the House of Commons inquiry into Climategate.

Embattled University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit Professor Phil Jones was given a luke warm grilling by MPs on Tuesday, but the hot news on the denier blogosphere wasn't this but the submission to the inquiry from the Institute of Physics.

In what could charitably be referred to as a 'robust' submission, the IoP repeated most of the more lurid accusations against Jones and the CRU but also, for good measure, stuck in the assertion that
The CRU e-mails as published on the internet provide prima facie evidence of determined and co-ordinated refusals to comply with honourable scientific traditions

So why did an organisation whose official line on Climate Change is
"The institutes's position on climate change is clear: the basic science is well enough understood to be sure that our climate is changing, and that we need to take action now to mitigate that change."
push Prof Jones under the metaphorical bus?

The answer is proving rather illusive. Despite their submission criticising the UEA for lack of transparency, nobody has been able to find out who actually wrote the submission. The IoP website has changed several times over the last 36 hours, but it now appears that the statement was the work of the Energy Sub-group.

This is where it gets interesting.

On that subcommittee is, and former chair of it, is a chap by the name of Peter F Gill. Mr Gill is the head of a company called Crestport Services who do consultancy work for
"oil and gas production companies including Shell, British Gas, and Petroleum Development Oman"
In other words, he's in the pay of the oil companies.

Mr Gill pops up every now and again with his own views on Climate Change, and interesting they are too. Especially interesting is his little piece in the April 2008 newsletter of the IoP South Central branch. Under the disclaimer "The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the IOP Energy Group" he reels off in quick succession a number of what are known in the trade as 'zombie arguments' - discredited attacks on Climate Change science that continue to be repeated by deniers ad nausium irrespective of how many times they have been disproved.

In quick succession Mr Gill gives us
While the focus is on carbon dioxide, it is well known that water vapour is far more important
carbon dioxide content follows temperature changes rather than causing them
If mechanisms exist that can cause runaway greenhouse effects, then we are bound to ask why such mechanisms have not shown up in the geological record?
Those of us having to deal with these arguments on discussion boards are indebted to the Sceptical Science blog for their easy-to-use guide to zombie arguments. Mr Gill's article could be summarised as a 2, a 24 and a 41.

Comments like these pop up all over the internet, defying all attempts to slay them, but to find them on a publiction from the Institute of Physics is like finding a recipe for home brew in an Alcoholics Anonymous leaflet.

However Mr Gill is not done yet, for he ends the piece
Readers may like to know that the Energy Group of the Institute has invited glaciologist Prof. Zbigniew Jaworowski to speak to us in October. .... the speaker has decided to title his lecture "CO2: the greatest scientific scandal of our time".
Professor Jaworowski is a fellow who, for reasons known only to himself, believes the Antarctic ice cores that show how CO2 has risen steadily since the Industrial Revolution are wrong.

Save to say he is not widely respected. But then as Mr Gill ends his contribution
for many people the subject has become a religion, so facts and analysis have become largely irrelevant.

If (and it's still an if at the moment) Mr Gill was primarily responsible for putting together the submission to the committee, then the implications for science are scarcely less serious than if Prof Jones had confessed to all things the deniers accused him of.

The Institute of Physics, one of the most respected science bodies in the country, may have submitted evidence to parliament written by an oil industry funded Climate Change denier.

There are worse sins in the world of science than skipping morning lectures, and selling out your integrity is definately one of them. Watch this space - and mine's a Newcastle Brown.