Newton and Global Warming

SIr Isaac Newton

SIr Isaac Newton

Sometimes there is a book so full of things to think about that you can not read it quickly and savor it all. I’m in the middle of one of those now. “Is GOD a Mathematician?” by Mario Livio.

A full review will need to wait upon another time. For now, I’m up to page 124.

At first, a bit frustrating. He talks of the problem of math as discovered vs math as created by humanity as though that was the only choice, and a slightly false one. I wanted to speak out loud at the book that the grammar of math is discovered but the vocabulary is invented! (We invent the notation of squares and square roots and calculus, but the properties that underlay that notation are discovered and exist separate from our inventions…)

But after a small time on that sort of minor annoyance, confounding of things that can be analyzed, there is a very nice history of the development of mathematical thought and philosophy. The author starts with the foundations of mathematical thought and works his way forward through the various ages, and notable names. Exploring not only the evolution of mathematics and classical geometry, but also the relation of same to philosophy and reason. Along the way, illuminating the human side of such notables as Archimedes, Pythagoras, Descartes, Newton and more. Excerpts from letters written to friends where we have such, stories from others from time to time.

So far, an excellent read that has caused me to think about the connection of math to philosophy and physics. Something not done much lately. Perhaps something we ought to do a bit more often. And to appreciate the nature of the minds that struggled to endow us with such wonderful tools as we have today.

Global Warming?

But what could this possibly have to do with Global Warming?

In a discussion of Newton and his “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica” and the works of Descartes, the issue of God is raised again.

The Mathematician God of Newton and Descartes

As were most people of the time, both Newton and Descartes were religious men. The French writer known by the pen name of Voltaire (1694-1778), who wrote extensively about Newton, famously said that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary for us to invent Him.”

For Newton, the world’s very existence and the mathematical regularity of the observed cosmos were evidence for God’s presence.

Further down, after a discussion of the ‘catenary’ problem of a hanging chain or cable (it is not a parabola, but a hyperbolic cosine function. A suspension bridge support is parabolic as the force is uniform with respect to distance.) we come to Laplace.

Pierre-Simon Laplace

Pierre-Simon Laplace

Just in case you wonder, when Laplace talked about this hypothetical supreme “intelligence,” he did not mean God. Unlike Newton and Descartes, Laplace was not a religious person. When he gave a copy of his Celestial Mechanics to Napoleon Bonaparte, the later, who had heard that there was no reference to God in the work, remarked: “M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this huge book on the system of the universe and have never even mentioned its creator.” Laplace immediately replied: “I did not need to make that hypothesis.” The amused Napoleon told the mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange about this reply, and the latter exclaimed: “Ah! That is a beautiful hypothesis; it explains many things.” But the story doesn’t end there. When he heard about Lagrange’s reaction, Laplace commented dryly: “This hypothesis, Sir, explains in fact everything, but does not permit to predict anything. As a scholar, I must provide you with works permitting predictions.”

So I find myself enjoying the read greatly, lost in a musty world from hundreds of years ago, when I suddenly realize that as the Global Warming crowd invokes their Gaia God and explain all, yet admit of no accurate predictions, they are pretenders to a Newtonian ability, but fail the Laplace razor…

And that is the sort of thing I’m finding in this book. Even if I read a chapter or two then want to spend an hour in the garden while I integrate what it says into my world and self.

A book well worth reading. Perhaps even several times.

I’ll post more on it as I finish it, or have a particular point from some particular insight.

For now, I”m contemplating the AGW Skeptic as Laplace, and liking it.

About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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10 Responses to Newton and Global Warming

  1. Eric Barnes says:

    Great post! When the warmistas speaks of science, they are always using it as a rhetorical device and never want to closely examine their work with the scientific method. So sad. I wonder if the IPCC team members actually have an appreciation of what science truly is or should be? Or are they just that ignorant? My guess is that most are truly mediocre sycophants who know how to play the game or who have been “taught”. That was my impression from reading the emails at least. IMO, the best thing for the country would be to bring sanity back to funding for grants. Simple random awarding of grants would be better than what exists now. At least some skeptical or even non AGW avenues of research would be funded at least. Some grants that are funded are just laughable. See

    on Pielke Sr’s site for an example. Just absolute garbage.
    IMO, that grant should get some people fired, but nobodys at the wheel when it comes to the federal legislative bodies.

  2. Chuckles says:

    So the comment by Laplace transformed your outlook?

    As a yoof, I was captivated by Bell’s ‘Men of Mathematics’, a slightly similar historical overview, and a pleasure and a revelation to read.

    @Eric B, I think we should perhaps first establish that it is a good idea that such large areas of research are directly funded by government, and indeed, done by academia. I am by no means convinced that that is the case, and would much rather it were done privately, and/or in industry.

  3. E.M.Smith says:

    @Chuckles: If you question is directed at me: It was not so much a transformational moment for my viewpoint as a crystallization moment. Realizing that an often heard lament about AGW (that it predicts everything, and so nothing) had a more sharp precursor. That Laplace had made a similar observation about the invocation of God in earlier times. (What I’ve chosen to call the “Laplace Razor”).

    Then realizing that the Laplace Razor, when applied to AGW, reaches the same place. AGW predicts global run away warming, but also global cold. It predicts sea level rise, but also allows it to take a few decades (centuries?) off. Models predict constant warming, but when we have cooling since 1998, well, that’s predicted too (some of the time in some of the model runs). So if it explains all the ills of the world, from polar bear population drops to coral reef death; yet the reefs are recovering just fine as are the polar bears (record population at about 4 times the minimum level of past decades); if it ‘explains all’ yet ‘predicts nothing’ via predicting everything: It fails the Laplace Razor.

    But that is not a change of outlook for me. It is a sharper understanding of the outlook and a stronger foundation on which to have it rest. Laplace was not a person to be ignored, he is one of the demi-gods of science. And his quick wit put a millstone around the neck of God as explanatory in science. It just is not needed as a hypothesis.

    And in very much the same way, CO2 as causal of Global Warming is just not needed as a hypothesis. And the Gaia God is just not needed… And all the papers that find this or that Bad Thing can be explained as just so much chaff in the wind. As they explain everything yet predict nothing.

    (There is a long list of things ‘predicted’ that do not happen. It is the failed predictions that are presently simply forgotten by the Warmists which fail the Laplace Razor).

    To me, that sharpens the razor…

  4. Chuckles says:


    Er, no, it wasn’t directed at anybody.
    Just a side effect of being an elec eng and having a matching misplaced sense of humour and love of dreadful puns and ellipsis.

    see ‘Laplace Transform’….

  5. View from the Solent says:

    Somewhat unconventionally, I came to the study of mathematics qua mathematics via philosophy followed by the history of maths. And that helped me immensely in those latter studies. You’re about 60 pages ahead of me in Mario Livio’s book. It’s fascinating. Like you I can only read a chapter at a time, in my case a day or so of thinking about it follows. I thought that this made me a bit wierd, glad to hear that I’m not the only one.

  6. GregO says:


    Thanks for the tip on Livio’s book – I’ve seen it in bookstores and wondered if it was any good and now I know. I became a student of the history of mathematics while in my engineering undergrad years. I just wondered, “who thought this stuff up!?”. Morris Kline also wrote a wonderful set of books on the history of mathematical thought.

    You hit a nerve with me on AGW failed predictions. Right after Climategate I got interested in AGW claims and found right off that they couldn’t predict anything and had no shame whatsoever. More polar bears, less polar bears, more ice, less ice. Then the temperature records…I kept up on your posts of actual thermometer data and wow! How could anyone make the claim they can determine tenths of a degree multi-decade climate change from such flawed data.

    Paraphrasing Laplace, “AGW is an unnecessary conjecture”.

  7. E.M.Smith says:

    @Chuckles: Sorry… Sometimes I’m “humor impaired” when I’m working on serious stuff and don’t make the transition back to ‘reality’ as quickly as I ought. Should have caught the “Laplace Transform” pun… My college roomy was an EE, I was an EE student ‘for a while’ (actually, started with a Transistor Theory class at a community college while still in High School in about 1969 or so… while building tube radios from scratch…) Had more calculus than I care to remember (thankfully, I don’t remember most of it now ;-)

    Oh well… maybe if you add a smiley next time it will wake me up…

    @VftS: Well, I’ve taken a bit of time off for a Birthday party and a day trip with the spouse, so you might be able to ‘run ahead of me’ ;-)

    @GregO: Due to a house crammed with books, with which I cannot part… I now don’t look inside the covers of books at the book store, generally. In this case the Spouse asked me if I’d want it so… I looked… and started reading… and left the store with the book.

    You can’t tell a book by it’s cover, but if you start to read it you can buy a book from the teller, at least if you can cover it ;-)

  8. Dave McK says:

    I just need a double hi-fat latte and I could sit here all day.
    It looks like this is where the marathon midnight brainstorms from the college days have ended up.

  9. E.M.Smith says:

    I’m a “Double Mocha with whip” guy myself. I get to control the whip ;-)

    FWIW, I’ve now finished reading the book. Another week or so and I ought to be done thinking about it ;-)

    There is an interesting ‘twist’ at the end (last chapter) that I’ll not mention (lest it be a spoiler). It does make my one complaint less germane, though. There is also the interesting comment on fields that are refractory to mathematical analysis and prediction. One, in particular, was of interest:

    The example of chaotic systems as not amenable to mathematical analysis was brought up as an example of how perhaps the ‘extraordinary’ fit of mathematics to nature is more a selection bias than a universal truth. In particular, the chaotic nature of weather was mentioned.

    So here I sit, staring at one of the best overviews of the extraordinary effectiveness of mathematics for physical problems, and it points out that using mathematics on problems in the class of chaotic systems such as weather is where it fails.

    Now I’m trying to figure out how to demonstrate that this extends to climate as well.

    I am pretty sure it can be done. But the task would be hard and the path long. (Either that or I need more mocha… ;-)

    Here we have it. The very foundation of climate modeling is built on a false assumption. The assumption that mathematical modeling in a linear system (computer languages / formulas) can accurately represent the future of a chaotic system in nature. All while it is well attested that chaotic systems are refractory to mathematical treatment.

    At its very core, climate modeling contains a grievous flaw.

    Weather is chaotic. Climate is the derivative of weather, so Climate will also be chaotic (though on longer time scales and with, perhaps, some islands of stability for some significant periods of time). So we can have computer models that are simply ‘modeling the data’ and seem to hold for small spans, but then suddenly and significantly diverge from reality in non-recoverable ways.

    And thus we get the models we have today. They work ‘for a while’, then get ‘improved’, then work for a while, then get ‘improved’ again. All the while with no predictive ability. Nor can they ever be predictive. For at the core of it all, the reality is chaotic. (Be it short term hurricane patterns or longer term impacts of meteors or cosmic ray variations with solar and galactic changes.)

    The Global Warming Modelers have set out their Gordian Knot to rule over us. And here we have the refractory nature of chaos to mathematics as the sword with with which to cut it. But who will wield the sword?…

    @Dave McK: Yeah, I get this way after Mocha and a Really Good Book…

  10. P.G. Sharrow says:

    The knot does not contain the solution, destroying the knot is the solution.

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