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Vatican Invites 30 Scientists Including Bren School Dean To Apply Chaos Theory to Catastrophes
Five-Day Meeting Includes Audience with Pope John Paul II

Dozier and the PopeJeff Dozier, dean of the University of California’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at Santa Barbara, participated in the Pontifical Academy of Sciences study week on "Science for Survival and Sustainable Development." Dozier, one of 30 participants, represented NASA at the event held at the Vatican March 12 to 16. The scientists, including six from California institutions, had an audience with Pope John Paul II at his residence.

The purpose of the study week, according to Dozier, was to bring together representatives of two major trends in scientific thought: sustainability, on the one hand, and non-linear dynamics or chaos theory, on the other hand. The idea was to investigate ways of using the non-linear mathematics of chaos theory to examine probabilities of and to manage catastrophes. "Essentially, what occurred," says Dozier, "is that people from diverse fields explained their views to each other." And what emerged as the key subject for discussion was climate change.

"Recent discoveries," explains Dozier, "indicate that big changes in global climate can occur quickly." Dozier points to the work of James Kennett, professor of geological sciences at Santa Barbara, who analyzed samples of sediment taken from the bottom of the Santa Barbara Channel. Kennett showed that changes in the sedimentation in the Channel coincided with the sudden and short-lived warming periods that had been established by taking samples from deep cores in Greenland’s ice. Kennett’s work along with that of other researchers has recently demonstrated that worldwide changes in climate can take place over decades amounting to the span of a single lifetime. These rapid global changes, says Dozier, are examples of the types of phenomena that non-linear mathematics may help us understand better.

Pope John Paul II himself delivered remarks in French to the scientists. Despite the complexity of both the problems and the science for studying the problems, the pontiff’s message was straightforward: "Individuals sometimes have the impression that their personal decisions have no effect at the scale of a country, of the planet or of the cosmos…. Yet, we should recall that the Creator, has placed man in Creation, ordering him to manage it with the good of all in view…. From there, we can be sure that every small good deed of a person has a mysterious impact on social transformations and participates in the growth for all. … Prophetic actions, however modest, are an opportunity for many to question themselves and to engage in novel ways."

Dozier points out that John Paul II was instrumental in reversing the excommunication of Galileo. And many of the 70 members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which hosted the study week, are Nobel Prize winners. This pontiff, concludes Dozier, "has taken the view that he doesn’t want the church to be seen as anti-science."

At the Vatican proceedings, Dozier himself spoke of the view from on high. His subject, in accordance with his own academic specialty and his role as NASA representative, was remote viewing--the gathering of data about the Earth and its atmosphere by scientific instruments aboard satellites and aircraft.

"The thing I always try to address in such talks," says Dozier, "is that good observations can outlast a lot of bad theory." He is alluding to the way science is done with experiments being designed to elicit data that point to or confirm an overriding explanation or theory.

"One of the problems in this climate change business," says Dozier, "is the need to have the resolve to collect some of these measurements over 30 to 40 years. That is expensive, but the expense is not huge. The real impediment is that no agency in the federal government now has the mandate to pursue such prolonged, calibrated data collection."

Dozier’s message at the Vatican meeting was as straightforward as the pope’s: "Understanding what is happening to the Earth’s climate requires systematic collection of data over a period of time measured in decades, not months. Otherwise," he speculates, "our children 30 years from now will be saying to us, ‘If only you had measured those things, you would have seen….’"

Dozier is a member of NASA's Earth Systems Science and Applications Advisory Committee (ESSAAC), which is recommending that NASA take responsibility for seeing that systematic long-term observations on climate be assigned to the province of a specific federal agency.

In addition to Dozier, the other participants in the study week from California were Michael Ghil of UCLA's Institute for Geophysics and Planetary Physics; Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, based in Oakland; Wolfgang Panofsky of Stanford's Linear Accelerator Center; Elisabeth Paté-Cornell, also from Stanford; and Mikhail Rabinovich of the Institute for Nonlinear Science at the University of California at San Diego.

The talks by the participants will be published by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.