Saturday, April 14, 2018

A chemical engineer’s view of climate change.

We chemical engineers are a privileged group. We are well grounded in chemistry, physics and math. We are used to handling complex systems and understanding the subtleties of their behaviour. We do our best to integrate environmental sustainability into our work. This may surprise those for whom the very word “chemical” is an anathema, but they do not understand the extent of the challenge posed by a cradle-to-grave system for dealing with chemicals. Once the chemicals get to the retail scale, it is extremely difficult to prevent environmental abuse.

Armed with the chemical engineer’s skill set, it is possible to take a unique view of climate change. First, it helps to define what we understand by “climate change”? The hypothesis is that an increase in the greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere will increase the scattering of longwave infrared which would otherwise radiate harmlessly into space. The resultant imbalance in radiative fluxes would lead to heating of the atmosphere. Both the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and heating are observable, but it does not necessarily follow that the two are linked.

It is further supposed that the relative humidity will increase in a warmer world, and, because water vapour is a strong greenhouse gas, the rate of heating will increase exponentially. Intuitively, this makes sense. However, young chemical engineers soon learn that to every problem in a complex system there is always a simple straightforward solution – and that solution is always wrong!

The chemical engineer understands that feed forward disturbances in complex systems will indeed easily run out of control, and that there has to be feedback if the system is to be stable. The temperature control of the Earth is impressive. For any 100-year period during the past 8 000 years, the system has controlled itself within a range of ±2oC for more than 95% of the time. Climate science has been concentrating on the feed forward aspect, and seems to have completely neglected the stabilizing feedback mechanisms.

The world does appear to be warming. The official records claim to demonstrate this conclusively:
But there are a couple of problems with this official graph. If you take something like New York’s climate, and show the diurnal and seasonal changes, the official record looks insignificant:
That is “global warming”. Does it really look like a crisis? But worse is to come! Like a good chemical engineer, you check on the underlying data. You find, when you do this check, that the HADCRUT curve is a figment of someone’s imagination! The raw data has been “adjusted”. Cape Town’s data, for instance, shows slight cooling since 1880, but after adjustment the picture is dramatically different:
By ignoring the pre-1910 data and lowering the 1910 to 1960 data by exactly 1.21oC, the observed cooling has become a hypothetical warming! There are hundreds of sites to which similar “adjustments” have been made. A recent report observed “The conclusive findings of this research are that the three GAST [Global Average Surface Temperature] data sets are not a valid representation of reality.” HADCRUT is one of those three.

If you are a good chemical engineer, once your suspicions are aroused, you go very carefully. So when you are told “Extreme weather events, natural disasters and failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation” are high-ranking risks, you search for evidence in support. You go, for instance, to the climate bible, the Reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. There you find such warnings as:
• “There is low confidence that any observed long-term increases in tropical cyclone activity are robust
• “There is low confidence in observed trends in small-scale phenomena such as tornadoes and hail”
• “There is limited to medium evidence available to assess climate-driven observed changes in the magnitude and frequency of floods. Furthermore, there is low agreement in this evidence, and thus overall low confidence at the global scale regarding even the sign of these changes.” (Emphasis added)
• “Uncertainty in projections of changes in large-scale patterns of natural climate variability remains large.”

Now I ask you to imagine your Board’s reaction if you were to ask them for a few hundred million to address the risks posed by climate change, as assessed by the IPCC. You would probably be lucky to keep your job.

However, some Board members may have been reading Al Gore or similar science fiction. “What about the melting ice/sea level/ malaria/polar bears/coral?” And you would show them the evidence that the glaciers are only a few hundred years old – they come and go; that the sea level has been rising at about 1.7mm per year for as long as we have been able to measure it; or that, in 1923, malaria caused 10 000 deaths in Archangel, just outside the Arctic Circle; or that polar bear populations had been declining because too many hunting permits had been issued, and have since grown back; or that bleaching of corals is primarily due to short-term sea level changes such as those caused by El Nino.

They may fall back on the law. “We have signed the Paris Agreement!” But the Paris Agreement is about controlling temperatures, and that is something we chemical engineers know a lot about. The target is to control the Earth’s temperature to less than 1.5oC above some pre-industrial temperature. Look again at the first figure. The most recent data – which probably hasn’t been adjusted – shows a perfectly natural 0.6oC rise caused by El Nino. And our politicians are going to show us how to control to less than 1.5oC? Plus/minus how much?

But where we chemical engineers get really annoyed is when there are predictions about the future climate based on models. We do a lot of modelling. It is key to consistently producing chemicals of clearly defined properties from inputs of surprisingly variable composition. We maintain that quality in spite of plant disturbances, failed sensors, dramatic phase changes, ageing pumps. Our models work in real time.

The climate “models” fail. They all tell us the upper troposphere between the tropics should be warming faster than the surface of the earth. It isn’t. They can’t take into account the energy release of a single tropical cyclone, so their energy balance errs by a few zettajoules. We chemical engineers cringe at the amateur attempts to do modelling. If a model is demonstrably wrong, you should fix it before you go any further.

So what do they do with their failed models instead? They run them many times, and average the bad results. Then they use the average bad results to make predictions – invariably of worsening conditions. The extraordinary thing is that people believe them. Perhaps it is easier to create a putative problem than to rebuild a bridge or replace an ageing dam or heighten a sea wall.
Hans Andersen wrote a fable of the emperor’s non-existent new clothes. If Andersen were still alive, he would be amused to see his tale come true.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The worst website in the world?

When I started out in this computer game, I had to feed batches of punched cards into a mainframe. Fortunately there was a guide to the thing worked - it was an IBM manual. I used to hold out the manual as an example of how to write clearly, concisely and logically. Everything flowed naturally. The thoughts were beautifully expressed.

I used recipes as a counter example. "Take the peeled oranges" - huh? What peeled oranges? Oh yes, there were oranges in the list of ingredients, but you hadn't been asked to peel them, and at that point the recipe told you to watch the contents of the pot and keep stirring. Have you ever tried to peel an orange while stirring a pot full of frothing liquids which, you have been warned, is liable to boil over if you stop stirring for an instant?

There is a latter-day evil which has taken over from the recipe books. It is called a "website". Now there are websites which are things of great expertise. They work intuitively. You can find your way around them with never a glitch. You almost feel someone is holding your hand.

Then there are those for which I have an undying hatred. They lead you down the wrong path; they send you back to the start before you have really started; and they don't give you the information you need even when you get to where you thought you would be able to end.

I think the worst website in the world must be Ster Kinekor's. You would think that booking a cinema ticket would be the easiest thing in the world - they want you to buy something, and you want to buy it. But no! The first question you ask is "What's on?" and you get presented with a huge list. "Ahah! I'd like to see that!" you think, so you select it. You then try to choose your cinema. If you are fortunate, your chosen movie may be on at your chosen theatre - but it may not, and without further ado you are back at the "What's on?"

So you change your tactic. You choose a cinema first, and then ask "What's on?" You find a movie you want to see, and then try to find what time it is showing. Damn, it is only coming in two weeks. Back to the start.

Finally you find a movie you want to see, but the only time given is the time of its first showing. Surely there must be more than one time, you think. You flounder around and suddenly you are back at "What's on?" All the information you have given them is lost - you start again.

You want to know why the cinema nearest to you is closing? Look no further the the website.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Land in South Africa

The ANC has raised the spectre of land restitution without compensation. Zimbabwe, here we come, has been the general reaction. So when UCT's Summer School offered a course "The land question in South Africa", I felt I had to go.

The course was led by Prof Ntsebeza of UCT's African Studies department. It started with a description of the problems faced by rural folk, who have tenuous tenure of their land courtesy the local Chief. Many of the Chiefs are from families that were granted chiefly status by the apartheid regime, to administer Government policy in their "Bantustan". When democratic government arrived, they moved seamlessly to similar status in the tribal authority adminstering the land. Not surprisingly, there is a level of resentment among those so administered, particularly as the tribal authorities show some of the characteristics of apartheid apparatchiks.

In the Eastern Cape, the King appointed Headmen to villages. The hierarchy is King, each of whom has 20 or more Chiefs reporting to him; each Chief has about 10 Headmen; and each Headman looks after one or more communities. But some communities, years ago, had elected their Headmen, and felt very aggrieved at having outsiders thrust upon them.

A community under the KwaGcina Traditional Council was so miffed that it took the Council and King to court when they refused to allow an election. The community won. The National Government, King and Council appealed - and lost. A Headman was duly elected.

This precedent looks like changing the political structures in rural areas. No longer can the government of the day rely on voter fodder being herded towards them by compliant Headmen. Indeed, the change has already spread so far that an imposed Chief has been rejected.

One of the problems of the tribal structures is that they are are supposed to work closely with local government. There is even a Co-operative Governance Act defining the relationship between the two. However, it is the cause of a real turf war, with local government being frustrated in its efforts at every turn. The end result is inevitable - rural dwellers have no effective service delivery, no schools,no clinics or hospitals, no transport systems.

Government is doing what it can to resolve the impasse, which is really of their own making. Originally land was to be a local government responsibility, but under presure from the traditional leaders, the ANC gave way and allowed the tribal authorities to continue their administration. There are signs that they are working to rectify this. For instance, in KwaZulu Natal, Government is threatening to remove the Ingonyama Trust of some 28 000 square kilometers from the control of King Zwelethini.

I came away from the course with a very different view of land reform in South Africa. I no longer believe the Zimbabwe example has any relevance. Rather, I believe we are seeing a democratisation of South Africa which will give us a stronger future, with the associated disappearance of the tribalism which has proved so divisive to our people.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Good, pure food

When I was a graduate student, I was allowed into the chemistry staff Tea Room. In those days, my degree had only just changed from Applied and Industrial Chemistry to Chemical Engineering, and we still had strong ties to the Chemistry Department.

In the tea room, there was lots of scientific reading matter. There were bound copies of journals, some in German, and some going back into the 19th century. One which fascinated me was "The Analyst", dating back to 1878 and still published by the Royal Society for Chemistry today.

Much of the early work had to do with the adulteration of food. There were ways of measuring the amount of chalk added to milk, or pigfat added to butter, or glycerine to wine. It was pretty horrifying what the Victorians came up with to enrich the butcher or grocer without killing the customer. Sweeney Todd was no joke!

Fast forward to today. I do quite a lot of cooking for myself, and rather enjoy it. A recent recipe for sauerkraut from the Economist has proven a great success, even if I had to visit the local spice emporium to find fennel. But I soon found there was something funny about chicken. When I cooked it, it oozed a white, unappetising goo. Then my supermarket had a special on Brazilian chicken, and when I cooked that, it didn't ooze.

Curious, I did a bit of digging, and found that the local chicken had "brine" added to it. Now brine is a colloquial word for salt water, and salt water doesn't contain goo. A bit more digging, and I found I was buying not just chicken, but chicken fattened and moisturized with chicken blood plasma in brine. So that was why it oozed and shrank.

Then I observed the same phenomenon in bacon. The commercial stuff was limpid and ended up half the size when cooked - if you were lucky. The German butcher sold me the real thing at a small fortune per kg, but it was firm and didn't ooze and shrink when you cooked it.

Soon I was finding ooze everywhere. The kipper that barely fitted into the pan, but looked like a sardine once it was done. The gammon that looked big enough for ten hungry mouths, yet had to be sliced very thin to celebrate Christmas.

I'm cross, and so should you be. Why do we allow ourselves to be ripped off in this way? To be sold something that contains about 30% that isn't what it claims to be? I see the poultry producers are complaining about unfair competition from imports. If they would stop adulterating our food, perhaps we might be more sympathetic.

Friday, December 1, 2017

There is no debate!

Three weeks ago I received an invitation from the National Science and Technology Forum - 
Show us the evidence for climate change
17 November 2017, Kempton Park, Gauteng

The National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF
) is pleased to announce that Professors Bob and Mary Scholes will present on climate change. This is an interactive discussion on this critical matter.

I thought the opportunity to take part on an "interactive discussion" was too good to miss, so I registered for the event.

Then the programme came out, and I wrote to the NSTF:
"I see from the programme that only 20 minutes is set aside for discussion, which after 80 minutes of presentation seems rather unbalanced.Would it be possible to prebook five minutes of that time?  I have a very short presentation covering four of the issues that I believe the presenters will cover – and if they don’t cover one of them, I can easily drop that from my presentation."

There was a lot of scuttling around, and finally "Yes, we will make it possible" 

In the event, it turned out that the occasion was the Annual General Meeting of the NSTF, and Bob Scholes was effectively the guest speaker.  He gave what I would call the orthodox version of the climate change story. There were some very contentious bits - for instance, he believed the dendrothermometry behind the Hockey Stick, claiming that the author, Michael Mann, had been exonerated by eight separate hearings.  The fact that Steve McIntyre had shown conclusively that Mann's maths was wrong, and gave hockey sticks from random data, was ignored. Mann's "trick", of deleting the inconvenient data showing tree rings narrowing as the world warmed, was omitted. 

The lecture was about an hour long. Finally, then, there was to be discussion. There were a few questions, and when those slowed to naught, I was permitted to make my contribution. Scholes was allowed to respond and concentrated on the effect of 0.8 deg C warming - "The world was only 5 degrees colder at the depths of the Ice Age". - which surprised me. One ice core I know well, was several degrees warmer than today during the previous interglacial, and 10 deg C colder 20 000 years ago.

Over lunch, all the people at my table thanked me for my contribution. They felt it had been balanced, and showed that there was more to the orthodox view than they had been led to believe.

Two weeks went by, and there was a "Media Release":
and discussion can be found on the NSTF web site ( Please send information and comments to"

In hope I went to the website, and found Scholes' story there, and nothing else. Of my presentation, no sign.

I wrote to the NSTF - "I distinctly recall making a presentation, but I cannot find it on the website. When will it appear?" To date I have had no response. 

Clearly what I had to say must have been very subversive.  You can view it via:

I cannot help but think that the NSTF needs to wake up.  There are two sides to every debate. Presenting one and censoring the other isn't science.

About ten days after the above appeared, I had a very nice letter from the NSTF. Most apologetic that my presentation had been overlooked, but it was posted now. Perhaps all is not lost! 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Zeitz Mocaa

I am not an art freak.  Nevertheless, the transformation of a 1920's grain silo into a modern art gallery sounded sufficiently unusual to deserve at least a visit.  
I still had qualms. To my eyes, too much of what passes as "African Art" is naive at best, childish at worst.  Would this have any level of sophistication?
I should not have worried. I entered a very ordinary loading platform, complete with rails still on the floor. A metre or so inside, and I was in a cathedral of a space, with the old silos sliced in graceful curves.
                                                       Image courtesy Zeitz Mocaa
Overhead was a glass roof; some of the silo remnants were dangling threateningly; some housed spiral staircases, and others, lifts. I took a lift to the sixth floor, and stepped out into a sculpture garden. Stepping was gingerish at first, because I was walking on the glass roof, and very aware of six floors of drop beneath my feet.  My head told me it was perfectly safe; the pit of my stomach told me quite the reverse!
There followed three hours of visual stimulation. Round a circuit of cubical galleries, some containing no more than a small picture on each wall, then down a floor. There was a wonderful triptych involving a zebra, by Athi-Patra Ruga - a great example of the technique of using high-definition ink-jet printing. Kudzanai Chiurai was prolific;  his protest posters were a hoot, and his Lyeza film explored a sort of Last Supper theme very creatively. Nandipha Mntambo did magical things with cow hides - some of her creations could have graced grand balls. Mary Sibande's Opportunity was superbly sculpted, with a charging horse to end all charges.  It did not matter that a room full of hanging bricks (Kendall Geers) and another of hanging beer bottles (Lungiswa Gquanta) were trite, or that Penny Siopsis had a whole wall which would have been better covered by graffiti - there was enough creativity elsewhere to take away the bad taste.  Towards the end, William Kentridge's Dance was 12 minutes of sheer bliss - a vast panorama covering three walls, inviting total immersion and succeeding brilliantly.
The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art is a fantastic addition to the list of Cape Town's attractions.  Don't miss it!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

How green WAS my valley!

We are all "green." We love nature. We will do all we can to save it from being ravaged by mankind. But there is a problem. As Einstein remarked Raffiniert ist der Herr Gott, aber boshaft ist er nicht,” roughly translated as "The Good Lord may be subtle, but He is not malicious."
This should be a warning that you must at all costs avoid being what I call a "galloping green." There is no point in plunging ahead when you think you have spotted a problem. Just remember, there is always a simple, straightforward solution to virtually every problem, and that solution is invariably wrong. You have to think before you act. Gut feeling for nature could do damage, not solve the problem!
There is a wonderful example in the latest Nature journal, Down in Puglia, the heel of the boot which is Italy, some olive trees started dying.  The plant pathologists identified a foreign bacterium, Xylella fastidiosa, as the culprit. They recommended uprooting the infected trees and everything within 100m of it.
But the local green movement was against this.  They "knew" all about diseases of olive trees, and were not going to allow 1 000 year old specimens to be uprooted. They chained themselves to the infected trees to prevent them being taken down; they went to court to stop the "massacre." They convinced the Puglian judge that the problem was fungal, not bacterial, and that they were expert in handling olive trees attacked by fungi.  The judge believed them.
And so the problem has spread through the whole of Puglia, some 200 000ha of olive groves, and is moving steadily north.  It has taken six months, but the judgement has been reversed - probably not too late to save the rest of Italy's crop. 
But Puglia is doomed, dead trees everywhere.  And the bacterium seems to have spread - to coastal Spain, across the Adriatic to Greece. All because the tree huggers thought they had the answer. Sometimes one thinks green is the colour beloved by the Devil himself!