Wednesday, July 20, 2011

CERN, Cosmic Rays, and You

So the Director of CERN has made the news by making a ham-fisted announcement prohibiting scientists there from "interpreting" some interesting cosmic ray results.  I say ham-fisted because the most likely explanation is not scientific suppression but a well-meaning attempt to stay out of the shark pool of the Global Warming debate.  Instead, he just stabbed himself repeatedly in the face with a fork and *then* jumped in the shark tank.  Now everyone, including the global warming aficionados, think the data will make AGW supporters look bad.

I'm not even sure why this is news, since the mechanism behind the cloud chamber has been known for almost 100 years and speculation that cosmic ray interaction with the upper atmosphere seeded clouds has been around for some time.  But any day you get a reporter to sit still for five minutes and listen about science is a golden opportunity to get some information in their thick skulls and we shouldn't refuse the opportunity.

Basically the way it works is like this.  The Earth has a magnetic field which, in addition to powering Boy Scout compasses, protects us scampering carbon-based life-forms from solar radiation and other high-energy particles.  The Sun also has a very powerful magnetic field, and when the Sun is magnetically active (read: lots of sunspots) the outermost edges of the field actually blend and cover the magnetic field of the Earth and give extra protection.  When solar magnetic activity is low (like right now) we get less protection from energetic particles.  Cosmic rays are highly energetic particles usually from other stars, which gives you an idea of how powerful they are to have gotten here in the first place.  What Svensmark and other researchers speculate is that in times of high cosmic ray exposure, cloud cover on Earth is increased and the surface cools.  When fewer cosmic rays seed clouds the surface warms up.  This is the long-anticipated mechanism that explains the observed connection between sunspots and Earth temperature, so of course the global warming folks want to smother it in its crib.  Humans are not involved at any step in the process, you see.



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