Three laws of nature:
We know there are natural laws, “heat rises” for instance.  Of course you might phrase it, “Hot air will tend to rise through colder air of the same pressure,” but you get the picture.  The law makes a prediction about the future.  Some laws are not that good.  Although the relationship between the temperature of a gas and the pressure may be predicted accurately within the proper experimental device, if you go outside and measure the temperature over a few days it will turn out to be rather erratic. 

For thousands of years people have looked at the stars and seen regular patterns, very exact patterns.  The law of gravity according to Newton is simple enough but predicting how three or four bodies in space interacting via the influence of gravity remains difficult.  I don’t know whether anybody has even tried it using Einstein’s more accurate law.  But the pattern remains very predictable.  Gravity is nice that way.  A baseball player can predict how a fly ball will behave so accurately that he or she has a very good chance of catching it in the air if it is coming close enough.

Another thing that can be measured and found to be very predictable is the energy coming from the sun.  It varies but only a little bit.  That is surprising.  The sun, we are told, is a thermonuclear explosion.  It should be very unstable.  Imagine the sun expanding a bit.  The heart cools.  The nuclear interactions slow.  And the energy falls.  Soon it should start to collapse again until the process repeats.  Like a child on a swing, the sun gets a nudge or two every cycle until the oscillations become so intense that we find it inconvenient. 

That doesn’t happen.  When you look at the sun, through a proper filter of course, what you see is called the photosphere.  It is the luminous layer that gives us the energy that drives most of life.  There are a few sun spots, but by and large it is a slightly oblate spheroid, constant and serene in aspect.  However if you were to look at a video of the sun taken in the x-ray spectrum you would see a surface that bulges and wobbles amazingly.  I don’t know why that video is not a universal icon it is so impressive, but I once did see it.  The bulges, so I interpret, are localized areas undergoing cycles much as I describe.  Some unhappy day they may all get in synchrony and we shall have a bit of trouble, but it hasn’t happened recently.  The observation that the sun’s energy output is constant is more apparent than real. 

People who study predictable things tend to get a lot of prestige.  Astronomy has been a high status field for a long time, and the pay and perks (They give you nifty stuff to play with.) are substantial.  Van Vleck Observatory at Wesleyan University has a 20 inch refractor that was one of the principle tools used in the early science of astrometry.  I have mentioned before that the first accurate scientific measurements were made by Tycho Brahe using a fourteen foot iron rod.  Among other things he reasoned that if some stars were closer than others, then the closer ones should appear to shift against the more distant during the course of the year.  His instrument showed no such shift so he concluded that the stars really are points on a great sphere rather than suns scattered through the depths of space.

Wesleyans Alvan Clark telescope was planned as an 18.5 inch refractor.  Installation was delayed because the blank for the lens had been ordered from Germany and WW I caused a delay in delivery.  When it did arrive the blank proved so good that they made a 20 inch lens from it.   If Brahe had been able to use that one his conclusions would have been different.  In fact that is exactly what the telescope was initially used for, determining distances to stars.  The little song that begins, “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are,” was rendered in my childhood (if memory serves), “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder where you are.”  It seems that astrometry had that much clout.

So there are two natural laws that make consistent predictions in the real world: gravity and solar luminescence, and solar luminescence does not count because we really don’t see what is going on.  So there is only one. 

And now of course there is a second.  If you look at the numbers I present – most recently in the Vancouver poster – it turns out that the fate of societies is very predictable.  In fact of all natural laws it is the cleanest one in terms of what can actually be observed second only to gravity.  Since this involves our vital interest, it ought to spark more interest.

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