Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Kids and Science

I heard through the grapevine that a bunch of 8-10 year old kids in the U.K. published in a prestigious journal, led by their teacher and a research scientist. The topic was bees and my interest lies not in the publishing part but in the science and kids part, especially treating science like a game or puzzle. The kids formulated the questions and hypothesis and constructed the game and analyzed the results ... even writing up the manuscript. As the essay stated, which accompanied the article, the kids were proud of what they had learned and wanted to share that knowledge.  Now that is some good science education.


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Scales of uncertainty

The latest fuss in meteorological circles has focused rather intently on the Storm of Christmas, then the day after, and now the day after the day after Christmas storm. The storm has been "delayed" by 2 days over the course of the last week, and has shifted position numerous times in the forecast (gonna miss far to the east, bounce back to the west for a hit). We call this behavior uncertainty.

So what is uncertainty? "not confirmed", "still undecided", a "lack in confidence"

In modeling terms, the forecast solution has not yet converged. Our current capabilities, however, are quite robust at short range, meaning we expect the solution (over many initialization cycles) to converge. This time period is usually between 48 and 72 hours depending on the modeling system, the scale of the features that need to be resolved well, and the overall scale of the dynamical system which we seek to predict.

Over the years, despite many advances in satellite data, data assimilation systems, and numerical models and their increasingly sophisticated methods ... we still need to wait for the disturbances to enter the well instrumented radiosonde network*. Alas this too can be deceiving as was the case for the Surprise snowstorm of January 2000. You see a classic nor'easter can have origins from the Pacific Northwest which travels in amplified flow towards the gulf coast. The system itself may never leave the well instrumented but the warm gulf, cool temperatures aloft, and strong wind shear may foster convection ... thunderstorms ... or organized noise. This noise can then feedback from the large scale to the small scale ... outside the network and remain outside the network as the coastal low forms and deepens as it travels up the coast.

So, you can see how a "converged" solution of where the storm will be, can help us have confidence on predicting the other aspects of the storms. But uncertainty remains in where the precipitation will be, what precipitation type will fall, and for how long.

This uncertainty about snowfall placement and amount is very similar to the summer forecasting of thunderstorms. We may have a converged solution of the larger scale details but the smaller scale details can have a large effect on where, when, which storms will form and how severe they might be.

This where the art of forecasting kicks in. Where the analog experience of forecasters contributes. Knowing how they were fooled last time, or how they picked up on certain observed details which caused them to do better than the models. The forecaster has the ability to understand these scales of uncertainty. Only in the last few years have methods been developed, like the Ensemble Kalman Filter, which can show us where the uncertainty is for a specified region at 3,5,7 day lead time. In fact the Winter Weather Reconaissance program is designed to use these methods, then collect data in the uncertain regions to see how that can change the forecast and its uncertainty!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Turkey and Construction

I like to read blogs and watch TED talks. So naturally, staying home with a fever allows me to catch up from Thanksgiving travel.

Tuned In had a great perspective on Turkey and Thanksgiving. How often do we cook turkey aside from Thanksgiving or order turkey from a restaurant?  I never considered this take on turkey. It was ingrained. I need to enhance my turkey perspective since i know that turkeys are now bred for Thanksgiving. Is this a sustainable practice?

Earlier I watched a builder (Dan Phillips) discuss the philosophical underpinning behind modern construction techniques/practices. he said there are two groups of people for which I am sure the spellings are completely wrong: Dionysians and Appelonians. The former demands perfection and elegance, brand new materials, constructed perfectly, no imperfections anywhere. This view of modern construction produces a lot of waste. Waste that this builder uses to build imperfect houses. And they are interesting! Clearly I am a practical Appelonian who can live with flaws. Things only need to be fixed when they cease to function. When they cease to function you harvest the parts, or break them, to create new parts.  His closing statement said that we have put vanity at the foundation of our lives. And this is not sustainable.

This was a fascinating talk on many levels. So why blog about Turkey and Philosophical Construction Practices?  Both are ingrained into our perspective of how things are. Right Now. As a society we need to be concerned with how we want the future to unfold. We want our perspective to be rich, dense, and broad. This is how we make our traditions sustainable. We need to be aware of the consequences or at least put some forethought into what the consequences might be. Our founding fathers did and stated this. They wrote it down in many ways and acknowledged the imperfections both in the document itself and themselves. That is pretty profound and very rich in perspective.

We are failing in this regard. Our perspective is about wants in the here and now. We all need to get back to needs. And perhaps it starts with changing our perspective. Unless you try to serve ham at Thanksgiving.