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Catherine H. Crouch

Reading the Ice Cores

How scientists really predict the future.

The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future, by Richard B. Alley, Princeton University Press, 2000, 240 pp.; $24.95

If there is one thing that distinguishes the beginning of this century from the beginning of the last, it may be the ability of the average educated person to accept fantastical scientific achievements, not to mention new scientific jargon, without a second thought. Physicists talk about tiny particles with weird names; biologists have just unveiled a complete map of the human genome; environmental scientists make sweeping claims about climate change. But how, exactly, do scientists get this information? A great deal of contemporary science explores things too remote in space or time (or both), or too tiny, to permit direct observation. You can't simply put your finger under a microscope and read off your genetic code.

Much of the ingenuity of science lies in figuring out how to figure things out. The multicolored "map" of the genome came only after a maddeningly complex, and highly automated, process of separating DNA molecules from all the rest of the biochemical stew that fills cell nuclei and performing a lengthy series of chemical reactions that identified, one by one, the sequence of the four possible constituents of DNA. Identifying the fundamental building blocks of the universe—bizarre particles such as the top quark and the Higgs boson—involves accelerating beams of more ordinary particles such as protons to speeds nearly that of light (a heroic experimental task in itself), colliding these high-speed particles together, measuring the paths followed by the particle debris from these collisions, and—from those paths—inferring properties such as mass and charge of the particles under investigation.

So it is also with our current understanding of Earth's climate, the subject of Richard Alley's superb book, The Two-Mile Time Machine. As Alley explains in the introduction ("Setting the Stage"), ...

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