In science, no work is completed until it has been picked to pieces

Dangerous dithering.

What does a scientist have to do to convince you? The answer used to be “wait until his critics die” – hence the physicist Max Planck’s assertion that science advances one funeral at a time.

But sometimes even that is not enough. Late last month, the smell researcher Luca Turin published striking new evidence supporting an idea first put forward by Sir Malcolm Dyson in 1938. Dyson presented his “vibrational” theory of how our sense of smell works to universal apathy. Three generations later, scientists are still saying “meh”.

That year, 1938, was also when it was first argued that pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would raise global temperatures. The idea came from the steam engineer Guy Stewart Callendar; the broad response was “implausible”. Today, in 2013, scientists have shifted: they generally agree that Callendar was right. Yet there remains a dangerous level of disagreement about the detail.

At least Turin’s scientific peers have presented him with a clear path to follow. Dyson’s idea was that when a molecule gets up our nose, its characteristic smell is created by the way the bonds within that molecule vibrate. In a clever piece of experimental work, Turin has shown that human beings can distinguish between two molecules that differ only in the way they vibrate. The two molecules tested were both cyclopentadecanone, but while one contained normal hydrogen atoms the other contained “deuterated” hydrogen, which has an added neutron in its atomic nucleus. The additional particle creates a difference in the way the molecules vibrate. And that is why, according to Turin, they smell different to us.

The experiment punches a hole in the accepted theory of smell, which says that smell experiences are triggered by differently shaped molecules fitting different receptors in the nose. This “lock and key” idea can’t explain why two identically shaped molecules smell different. But Turin’s critics said last month that before they will even consider accepting his theory, they want him to show exactly what goes on in human smell receptors.

They are right to make such demands. This is science, where no work is finished until it has been picked to pieces. But that is exactly why it has been so easy to do so little about climate change since 1938. Later this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will make some highly equivocal, backtracking announcements. In a report due for release in December, the IPCC will concede that we can’t be sure tropical cyclones will become more frequent, or that droughts will get worse. Worries that the Gulf Stream will collapse, tentatively raised in the 2007 IPCC report, are allayed: such an event is “unlikely” to occur in the foreseeable future.

Concern over details can have an unhelpful effect, masking the big picture on climate change – the one that Nicholas Stern, who wrote the UK government’s 2006 review on the science, said at Davos last month is “far, far worse” than we were led to believe originally. Until that, rather than the detail, becomes the focus, we can continue to dither over whether to do anything, let alone deciding what course we might take.

It does not matter a great deal that no one is willing to risk his career by backing Luca Turin – but to wait for absolute certainty over the details of climate change before we do anything about it will spell life or death for many. If science continues to advance one funeral at a time, its acceleration is assured; and there will be no shortage of funerals in a world that’s 4° warmer.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

Anna Leszkiewicz
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Why doesn't falling snow show up on your phone camera?

And while we're at it, why can't you take a good picture of the moon?

If snow falls on the ground and no one sees it on Instagram, did it really happen?

The answer to that question is a firm “No”, much to the chagrin of social media users around the United Kingdom today. There will be no flurry of Likes to accompany today’s flurry of snow, as one by one we each realise it is damned impossible to take a good picture of falling snow on our phone cameras.

 

A photo posted by Mamá 2.0 (@mama2punto0) on

The question is, why?

“All photography is dependent on light irrespective of camera type,” says Matthew Hawkins, a senior lecturer in photography at The University of the Arts, London. “Snowflakes usually fall in times of low contrast and relatively low levels of light.

“This increases the duration of exposure which becomes too long to freeze the motion of an inherently translucent flake.”

So it seems that, provided you’re not trying to shoot on a Nokia 3310, it might not actually be your phone that is the problem. In recent years phone cameras have become incredibly advanced, and the World Photography Organisation even has awards for mobile phone photos.

That said, phone cameras are obviously less advanced than expensive, professional DSLRs, and a lot of digital cameras actually have a “snow mode”, designed to help with the lighting issues that occur when photographing bright, white snow. "Snow scenes generally tend to come out underexposed, so exposure compensation (adding more stops) is usually needed and the automatic settings within a phone camera don't compensate for this," says James Jones, a freelance photographer.

Lauren Winsor, a photography lecturer at Kingston University, adds: “The shutter simply isn’t quick enough to freeze the majority of falling snow. It’s therefore either lost to near invisible motion blur or rendered as inelegant white, out of focus blobs.”

Given that your iPhone is currently trying to catch up with a theatre mode, it’s no wonder that it’s not really designed for the complexities of snow.

But if – as Hawkins says – these problems occur with fancy cameras as well as your phone, then why are your snow photos so underwhelming?

The answer to the question might actually be the answer to life’s many questions: you’re just not very good.

 

A photo posted by kayleepaterson94 (@ironcreature94) on

When I ask Lewis Bush, a photography lecturer (who is currently working on a project that uses satellite imagery for another perspective on the refugee crisis), why it’s so hard to capture a good picture of falling snow, he says it’s isn’t “if you know how”.

Multiple online guides have sprung up to help you get this knowledge, and Paul Moore, of iphonephotographyschool.com offers eight tips for the perfect wintery photo. “Depending on the light and the weather, snow can take on different color hues or even end up a dull gray color,” he writes, advising that it can instead be fixed in editing. A simple black and white filter or a photo editing app can change everything.

And while you’re here, what about nature’s other trickiest photography subject, the humble moon? Bush has advice for any amateur phone photographers looking to capture the big cheese. “The moon is hard, so shoot with manual exposure controls if your phone has them, you could also try using telephoto adaptors that clip on to your phone camera or even borrowing a telescope and shooting through it,” he says.

But if the snow continues to fall and you can't afford a swanky camera, what on earth should you do next?

“Shoot towards something dark,” says Bush. “White snow isn’t like to appear very well on a white background, and use a flash if it’s dark.

“Also, maybe question whether the world really needs more photographs of snow?”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.