Where's the Thermometer?

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When I was a boy, I thought it must be at the airport, because the weather reports on the radio usually gave the temperature there. That seemed odd, though, because even in those ante-diluvian days, thermometers were common, and we could easily determine the temperature without depending on the airport thermometer. And, in fact, we did have a thermometer, which rarely gave readings that were the same as those at the airport. Still, in any discussion of the weather, we would always refer to what we assumed to be the "official" temperature, namely, that at the airport, not where we actually lived.

Today we have several thermometers around the house. I checked them this morning at about 9:13, and got the following readings: The thermometer outside the kitchen window — in the sun: 59 degrees. The thermometer by the front door, on the porch, shaded: 46 degrees. The indoor/outdoor thermometer at the other end of the front porch, also shaded: 45.5 degrees. The indoor/outdoor thermometer that reads the temperature outside of our bedroom window: 52.5 degrees. So here’s my question: what was the temperature at our house this morning at 9:13?

I realize you probably aren’t very concerned about it. Neither, for that matter, am I. We also have several thermometers that read the temperature indoors, and they are never in agreement, either. I’ve learned that if you are chilly, and want to raise the thermostat, you quote from the thermometer giving the coolest reading. On the other hand, if you’re warm, and want to lower the heat, you refer to the highest-reading instrument to justify that. The thermometer with the most adherents wins. There’s a sort of mini political correctness about the temperature in our home.

It seems remarkable — indeed, well nigh unbelievable — -that scientists are worried about the global temperature! They claim that it is on the way up, citing various data, the consensus being that over the last century, the temperature of the earth has increased approximately .5 to 1 degree Fahrenheit. "Wow," you say. "So what!" Well, my friend, it’s a big deal! That single degree rise in the last 100 years is greater than the temperature rise over the preceding 400 to 600 years, according to the experts!

Now just a minute! Science is nothing if not accurate measuring of phenomena. Are we to believe that 500 years ago (give or take a century) the temperature of the earth was being taken, and with the same type of instruments, and of the same accuracy, as today? Remember, we’re talking about a maximum of one degree here!

And just how is the earth’s temperature taken today? Well, one method is to send thermometer-equipped balloons aloft. Can we expect precise readings from thermometers blown about by the wind? Maybe so, but was this being done a century ago, in just the same places, with instruments calibrated to the same standards, at exactly the same altitudes, and at the same times of year? It doesn’t seem likely.

Another method of taking the earth’s temperature is from satellites, measuring infrared radiation, or microwave radiation from oxygen. Were they doing that a century ago, much less four to six centuries ago? And does the microwave radiation from oxygen tell us anything except — — the microwave radiation from oxygen? Of course, this radiation is affected by temperature, so it’s reasonable to assume that it varies with the earth’s temperature. Bear in mind, however, that we’re talking about a maximum temperature variation of one degree over the last century. Can we reasonably conclude anything about our planet’s temperature 500 years ago from these indirect measurements developed, relatively speaking, in the last few minutes?

I just checked our outside-the-bedroom thermometer again. It’s been an hour since I last did so, and the temperature now is 60.5 degrees. That’s a jump of eight degrees in sixty minutes. Good grief! At this rate we’ll be incinerated by nightfall!

At one time there was much concern about a shortage of whale oil. We were about to be plunged into darkness! We survived, somehow. I have a feeling that we’ll live through "global warming" as well. Put it toward the bottom of your list of things to fret about.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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