Wednesday, July 6, 2011

An argument

- Joao Almeida [NUI Galway]

Believe it or not, the ocean and the atmosphere are having a chat. And we’re out here to listen to their conversation. We want to hear their arguments, for we have good reasons to think that what they’re talking about concerns us all. They sure speak in mysterious ways, whispering most of the time. And before we can understand them we must understand the syntax of their language, which is a much easier task when we can hear them talking out loud. That’s what brings us here, in this very region of the North Atlantic at this very time of the year, where the atmosphere sometimes screams at the ocean.

So all we need is a sophisticated headset, to allow us to listen to the very specific range of frequencies they both use to communicate, and a recorder, so we can listen to their dialogue later and eventually translate it. What we need also is one big boat with a crew, to carry our gear on site and bring us - the linguists, or interpreters, but mostly plumbers, by affinity - out there right where the argument is about to occur, and take us back home, safe and sound.

Our headsets can be tricky to handle, for they conduct air and seawater, and sometimes we even have to throw them out in the ocean and leave them there overnight, trusting them to bring us all the right numbers. Yes, numbers! The funny thing is we’re trying to understand how the atmosphere and the ocean communicate looking at numbers. And numbers constitute the most valuable currency onboard, for their scarcity, and for being the only window we have into the problem that brought us here.

That’s where it gets even trickier, or say, challenging. We’re literally trying to anticipate an ocean of numbers, permanently changing in time, by looking carefully at a handful of them. Richard Feynman once brought up an insightful analogy where he compared the work of a scientist in understanding the laws of Physics to the one of an observer of a chess game trying to understand the rules of the game by looking at a limited area of the board only. It might sound impossible but it sure is enjoyable. And it is what brings us all on this journey. Cause for all we know, and to finish with Shakespeare’s fine words , ‘The Earth has music for those who listen’.

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