Scare Stories

I used to worry about Peak Oil. I bought a copy of The Limits To Growth back in 1972 or so, and it had all these computer-generated graphs showing peak oil production being achieved in 1990 or maybe 1995. I bought it all hook, line, and sinker. I drank the kool-aid.

peak_chromeAt the time I shared a student flat with a guy who had also read The Limits To Growth, but who was thoroughly sceptical about it. So sceptical, in fact, that he set out to reconstruct the computer model used by the Club of Rome. I never really understood how he managed to do that, but he did. He worked on it for months. And he used his model to show that if you changed the assumptions and the feedbacks slightly, you could produce a whole bunch of completely different graphs. I helped him to generate the graphs using Fortran. We had both just learned how to programme computers, and I knew how to create the unique graphs in The Limits To Growth, which weren’t comprised of lines, but of characters that wandered up and down the page, showing Peak Chromium or something.

When he’d finished his thesis, which was full up with these character graphs, and his wife had typed the accompanying text for him, and it was all neatly bound and presented to the university, they awarded him a First. And he thoroughly deserved it. He had after all single-handedly reproduced The Limits To Growth with his own sceptical twist to it, debunking more or less everything in it.

I was also writing a thesis, and I had my own computer model. And when it came to typing the whole thing up, I hired an IBM electric typewriter to do it. I figured it would take a week or two to type. But after about 4 days my fingers seized up. They just stopped working. I couldn’t type at all. But fortunately his wife had completed his thesis by that time, and she took my manuscript and finished typing it for me. It only took her a day or two to type it all up. She had no trouble reading my handwriting (amazingly), and she could type very fast. 80 characters a minute, or something. I was very thankful for that. And so my thesis got handed in on time. Afterwards, the university told me that they would have given me a First for my thesis as well, except the rest of the work that I done during the course was more or less non-existent. But I didn’t think I deserved a First anyway. And I thought that he did. My thesis (which I still possess) was an unremarkable compilation of stuff I’d been taught. His thesis was an astounding tour de force. I thought he deserved a First – and I also thought that his wife deserved a Double First.

But even though he’d performed this remarkable feat, I didn’t believe him. He was, after all, just a student in a university. And The Club of Rome probably had an entire university or research facility at its disposal. They were authorities. They knew what they were talking about. So if they said that oil was going to run out in 1995, that was what was going to happen. So I kept in my imagination the looming Day When The Oil Ran Out, when cars would get scarcer and scarcer, and the motorways would gradually get covered in weeds and grass and brambles and even small trees, because nobody ever drove along them.  And people would walk everywhere, or ride ancient rattling bicycles, or horses. I could see it all.

I continued with this vision of the future for another decade or more. Until one day I began to realise that the oil wasn’t showing any sign of running out at all. The cars were still driving along the motorways, in ever greater numbers. There was no sign of any brambles or trees anywhere on them. And I was even driving my own car along them, and I could clearly see the absence of grass and nettles and bicycles and horses and wooden carts with my own two eyes. And that was when the spell broke, and I stopped worrying about Peak Oil. Or peak anything. I didn’t know why the oil hadn’t run out. All I knew was that it hadn’t. And that was really all I needed to know. The Club of Rome had got it wrong.

The Limits to Growth was back in about 1970. It was a precursor of Anthropogenic Global Warming scare in 2000, which is now running out of steam as well. It’s essentially the same format: Computer model written by army of boffins predicts doom in 20 years time. The predictions never come true, but for 20 years or so they generate enough publicity and alarm to to fund lucrative university careers for its high priests, usually somewhere in California.

In fact, I think that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer scare was an even earlier example of the genre. They didn’t have computers back in 1950, but they had the mathematics and the all-important graphs, and the prediction of the lung cancer doom facing the world’s smokers. And it scared the wits out of everybody. It still does, even though despite smokers quitting smoking in millions, lung cancer incidence just keeps on rising.

I’ve been wondering what the next big scare is going to be. They seem to show up every 20 years or so. It should be due any day now. It’s got to be something really scary that is going to happen in 20 years time if you don’t fund an army of boffins to avert it. As ever, the evidence will come in the form of compelling graphs generated by computer simulation models.

And I myself might be perfectly positioned to help start it. I’ve already got the computer simulation model that might do it. It’s the orbital simulation model I’ve gradually constructed over the past 20 years, and have recently been using to reconstruct the orbits of the asteroids that periodically fly past the Earth, like DA14 and the Chelyabinsk superbolide. And I’ve even had the scary idea: dust clouds. The idea is that there are huge clouds of dust, remnants of fragmented comets, in 20,000+ year orbits around the Sun, and when they arrive back at the Sun they dim the sunlight arriving at the surface of the Earth, causing ice ages.

It’s an entirely plausible idea, because there could be such dust clouds orbiting the Earth, with orbital periods of many thousands of years. Nobody knows. At present the reigning theory explaining Ice Ages is that of Milankovitch cycles, which are small cyclical variations in the orbit and rotation of the Earth, such that it’s slightly nearer or further away from the Sun. But the actual record of terrestrial ice ages over the past few million years isn’t as regular as the Milankovitch model would seem to suggest. If nothing else, the Earth has been getting steadily colder for the past 50 million years. It’s why most animals are covered in fur. And we’re currently living in a warm interglacial period that has only lasted for 10,000 years or so.

I started toying with the idea back in February, and began constructing models of dust clouds. My idea was that some 50 million years ago some very large body passed through the Solar System, and broke up into gradually lengthening clouds – hence the gradual subsequent cooling of the Earth. And if you examined the record of glaciations, it should be possible, using Fourier transforms, to extract the orbital periods of the various clouds in exactly the same way as the wavelengths of sound can be extracted from a piece of music, and you’d be able to predict when they’d show up next.

But I’ve never done a Fourier transform, so that’s as far as I’ve managed to get. But it might be a nice mathematical project to figure out how to do Fourier transforms, and apply them to the geological record. Last year’s mathematical project was to figure out how to construct Keplerian elliptical orbits, and it was as a result of this advance that I started thinking about dust clouds in very long period orbits.

Anyway, if it’s going to be worked up into a good, industrial-strength scare story, either the mathematics has to predict an approaching dust cloud, or a dust cloud needs to be spotted by astronomers in the constellation of Leo or somewhere, due to make perihelion in 20 years’ time, causing rapid global cooling.  One years’ time is too soon: nobody will be able to do anything about it. And 50 years’ time is too late: most people will be dead by then, and won’t care. 20 years is about right. Rich foundations and governments will then start funding crash research programmes to figure out how to avert the threat. Dust cloud science will be as big as AGW or Peak Oil or the tobacco cancer scare. Movies about the coming icy apocalypse will feature everyone wearing thick, padded, electrically-heated survival suits, holding candles, and be shot in semi-darkness in snowdrifts, while intrepid astronauts in deep space struggle to deploy the vacuum cleaner to suck up the dust.

And when the dust cloud finally shows up, if it shows up at all, it’ll prove to be a damp squib, posing little or no threat to anyone. But by then an army of dust cloud scientists and government departments will have got rich off the back of it, as will numerous authors and movie companies and movie stars. But by then the next big scare will have already started up, this time about the fleshing-eating Zorg virus just discovered in the Congo.


About Frank Davis

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13 Responses to Scare Stories

  1. Zaphod says:

    I think a good scare needs to be “someone else’s fault”?
    Somebody evil must be profiting from your doom.
    Antismoking only really took off when they invented SHS.
    The radon panic fizzled out, because there was nobody to blame.
    Mobile phone-brain cancer didn’t work out.

  2. sackersonwp says:

    I think Fred Hoyle theorised ice ages were caused by passing through clouds of interplanetary dust.

  3. DP says:

    Dear Mr Davis

    There is a theory of local clouds based on observations using the Hubble telescope.

    I came across this today at Watt’s Up With That:

    and later comments.


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