About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Shall we start a war on the weather?

Ah, of course somebody was going to suggest that we simply stop hurricanes dead in their tracks; after all, there is always a technological solution to everything, right?

Wrong. In fact, the US government conducted research from the 1960s through the '80s on how to stop or at least decrease the intensity of hurricanes, through a project called Stormfury, which cost several hundred million dollars. The idea was to drop silver iodide into clouds to facilitate the formation of ice nuclei, forming a new eyewall within the hurricane, which would collapse the original one and make the storm less dangerous. It didn't work. Hurricanes are simply too complex and powerful.

Ludicrously enough, at several points during the past decades, the suggestion has seriously been made to drop an atomic bomb inside a hurricane to wipe it away, an idea that not only smacks of environmental disaster, but is also absurdly naive once one compares the energy released by a human made bomb with that of a hurricane (according to the article referenced here, the heat energy released by a hurricane equals 50 to 200 trillion watts, or about the same amount of energy released by exploding a 10-megaton nuclear bomb every 20 minutes! Note: energy is actually measured in watt/second, as a reader of this blog pointed out).

Nope, we just have to live with nature, at least within certain limits, and it would be so much better if we didn't insist in building cities on coastal areas that are actually below water level. Sorry, New Orleans, but you really ought to go...


  1. Sorry, New Orleans, but you really ought to go...

    Ha, let's start with Venezia first.

    I spent a week there when I was 7, and all I can remember is how dirty and yucky it was.

  2. Ah, I knew that was coming! But there are some crucial differences: first, Venezia was not originally built below water level, the problem is part of the more general geological and land changes affecting that part of the Mediterranean coast; second, the Mediterranean doesn't have hurricanes, and so far people haven't lost lives and huge amounts of property because of the (slow) sinking of Venezia.

    But of course, Venezia will sink, and eventually half of the Netherlands (including Amsterdam) will be below water too. So be it, what are we going to do, start a war on geophysics? :-)

  3. So be it, what are we going to do, start a war on geophysics? :-)

    Well, I suppose if you can declare war on a nebulous entity like "terrorism", you can do the same for geophysics.

    Of course, there's no real need to worry. The Rapture will happen way before anything sinks below sea level.

  4. Scientific American had an article called Controlling Hurricanes in its October 2004 issue.

  5. Funny how non-rational people tend to ignore warnings and facts from scientists and never ask for considered opinions, yet often belive that science and technology can do anything.

    Contrast Bush and Star Wars with Bush and Global Warming.

    I remember a friend who smoked in the 50's who was said he was sure that medicine would have a cure for lung cancer long before he would need one.

  6. Excellent point about the manifest ideological use of science by Bush (he ain't the only politician to do that, of course).

    What happened to your friend? My father must have had a similar thought process, but unfortunately he didn't survive it.

  7. Another thing, which several "letters to the editor" after that Sci Am article also pointed out: even if there is indeed a feasible way to avert hurricanes and the like, should we do it? What would be the consequences for climate? We can't predict that, climate is a complex system, not by accident a very cited text book example for chaos theory.

    But seems like hurricanes bring an enormous amount of water and heat to the continental US, I guess everyone would agree. What would happen if we somehow stopped this flow of energy and water? I would think the consequences of NOT having the hurricanes might be much worse than the destruction they cause.

    Well, easy to talk when I'm not one of those on the monster's path (at least most of the time), but food for thought nonetheless...


  8. Don't know what happened to my friend. Hopefully he's quit long ago.

    He was a very intelligent person, yet never able to do well in school. Possibly dyslexic(sp?)

    It just seems so interesting that people without much understanding of science can not trust it in some areas and overly trust it in other areas.

    Similar to how Chicken Hawks have great trust in the military, none in any other government function, yet seem to be in shock and awe in fear of Jane Fonda and Cindy Sheehan. Words do have power especially those that model reality.

  9. One other thought.

    Electronic Voting.

    Dealing with legislators and secretary of state that are not scientists. They somehow have great faith in electronic voting without Voter Verified Paper Ballots. (or more likely faith in lobbiests from or financed by voting machine companies) (I don't use the word faith here lightly)

    They argue ad nausium with computer scientists that computers are reliable, while we argue 1) proven consistent, widespread failures, possible fraud 2)Mathematical proof (not even theory) of the halting problem that machines can never be proven reliable.

  10. Israel Developing Technology to Reduce Hurricane Damage


  11. I'm surprised to see you, a scientist, using the watt as a unit of energy. The watt is a unit of power. Energy, which is power applied over time, is expressed in joules (watt-seconds).

  12. Bill, good point. That was a direct quote from the linked article. I doubled checked, and they got it wrong. Thanks for the correction.


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