Thermodynamics? Its Not Just For Breakfast Anymore

oil well

For millennia mankind relied upon energy sources that were diffuse. We burned wood, which grows in energy-concentrating organisms called trees. We could only gather the wood if it had fallen, or if we could use our stone-based tools to break wood apart. Some folks were fortunate in that their environment held a form of turf that would burn, one we call peat. And once we domesticated animals, we discovered that we could burn their feces, if we could stomach the smell. But that was it. We could not leverage our power by harnessing energy sources to supplant muscle power.

Over time, we mastered the manufacture of metals. This made it easier to harvest wood, and made it easier to use it for heating and cooking. But only after we recognized as a species that we could use energy to create steam, and then harness the steam to do work, only then did we gain the possibility to advance society through the use of machines. Since that time, we have worked diligently to use ever more concentrated sources of energy in order to do our bidding. Coal was the first concentrated source of energy used to leverage man’s muscles, and entire regions rich in coal soon were honeycombed with tunnels where coal had been extracted.

Coal has its own problems, though. It is dirty, dusty, and burning it causes a sulfur stink to cling to the landscape where it is used. It also bears a human toil in the death and disabilities of those who work to mine coal. Oil has long been used by man for lighting, but the sources of oil were either vegetable in nature, or for a short time, based on blubber. This type of oil is a concentrated source of energy, but it is gathered by diffuse energy sources. It was only when man discovered how to extract virgin pools of petroleum oil from below the surface of the earth that it became possible to create a liquid fuel that could propel individual transportation vehicles. Once the miracles of fuel oil and gasoline were unleashed, the automobile age was enabled.

Concentrated sources of energy were viewed as inexhaustible in the earth, and man grew to believe it was his birthright to exploit these sources in perpetuity. Indeed, man even harnessed the second most concentrated source of energy known, that of atomic fission, and controlled it to convert mass into electricity. That source of energy creates its own problems, with long-lived radioactive waste, and with the narrow line separating safe operation from catastrophe. Still, the energy future for man looked bright.

But after centuries of exploiting concentrated energy sources, the problems resulting from their use have grown exponentially. In Appalachia, we no longer delve under the ground for rich veins of organic rock. The best veins are gone. Instead, we blow the top off of mountainsides in order to free up the 2′ and 3′ veins of coal that were left in bygone geological times. Excess dirt and rock is pushed over the sides of the former mountain, leaving behind a scar on the land where ground cover is grown to regenerate the soil that is long gone.

Standard oil wells have gone dry in many regions. The decline in oil production in the US, coupled with the expanding use of oil, led to over dependence upon foreign oil sources, particularly from the Arabian Gulf. In the 1970’s, this dependence led to the use of oil as a political weapon, as the Arab countries withheld oil from the US to protest Israel’s seizure of Arab lands after a failed Arab war on Israel. It was only with the advent of enhanced oil recovery through fracking that the long decline in US oil production was reversed.

But even with the impressive increase in oil and natural gas generated through fracking, there are other issues that need to be dealt with. This does not concern fracking wastes or earthquakes from waste fluid injection. No, it has to do with the depletion rates of wells drilled using fracking. Whereas a conventional petroleum reservoir has a depletion rate measured over decades, with fracking wells, the rate of production from a fracking well may decrease by over 50% in the first year. The depletion rate of a fracking well shows an exponential decrease in production, and the economic lifetime of a well may be less than 10 years. Thus it is necessary to keep drilling, inserting pipe into the ground, and dealing with all of the fluid handling for any oil or gas fracking well.

The net result is that it takes more and more energy to extract fossil fuels through fracking than the old method of production. Fewer and fewer BTU’s of useful energy is available from the well once all of the energy inputs of the well are subtracted. Subtract the energy used to make the steel pipe, the energy used to move all of the fluids and sand for fracking, the energy used to separate the fossil fuel from the comingled water, and the energy costs for pipelines and compressor stations for natural gas. One begins to come up against thermodynamic limits for obtaining useful energy out of fossil fuel extraction. For a link that you may find useful in pursuing this further, please check out http://peakoil.com/geology This website has many different perspectives on oil – either we are swimming in it, or the last big discoveries have already been made.

Note that this discussion has not mentioned carbon dioxide’s role as a greenhouse gas. Any solution to humanity’s energy issues needs to take greenhouse gases into account, but the underlying demise of the oil economy may happen despite all of the efforts to keep the oil flowing. No, what is needed is that we must realize that we need to go back to the older methods of harvesting diffuse energy sources. And all of the diffuse energy sources we have are tied to the sun. Whether it is solar electricity, or wind power, or biomaterials generating hydrocarbon liquids, all of them use the sun as the ultimate energy source. If we are to avoid a crisis over the next decade due to depletion of fossil fuel sources, we must commit to harvesting diffuse sources of solar energy to keep our society running.

Much of the blowback against global warming refers to the “globalists” imposing their control agenda upon the brave and valiant people who fly the fossil fuel flag. They are insistent that it is their right to live as their (most recent) forefathers lived, and keep buying the biggest SUV or pickup that they may ever need to have, simply because oil is cheap, and will always stay that way. Those people will be the first to be blindsided when oil prices keep climbing inexorably, year after year, and they will not understand that even though more oil is being harvested, only a small fraction of that oil is truly available to keep their profligate lifestyle afloat. If we truly do enter a world where it takes more energy to extract a barrel of oil than that oil will release during combustion, then the end for our life of ease will come, and we will retreat back into the life of the past, where all of our energy was consumed just in order to survive.

Inevitable?

Tantrum

In retrospect, it was inevitable. The very first time he encountered limits imposed upon him by systems he could not control, he regressed into the infantile emotional state that always existed just below the surface. For someone who never had to answer to others until he was hired to be President, he was woefully unprepared emotionally to face opposition and rejection. Thus now we have the spectacle of Donald Trump, arms crossed tightly around his torso while he expectorated his disgust about the actions of the US attorney’s office of the Southern District of New York.

He’s never had limits. As a child, he was fractious enough that his wealthy father enrolled him in military school to teach him discipline. While there, he began to exhibit his predilection for delegating responsibility while enjoying the privileges of rank. As documented in a story from the Washington Post in January 2016 , a dispute about whether a change in Cadet Trump’s assignment as a senior represented either a promotion, or a lateral move due to a failure in Trump’s ability to control his command, still drew a vitriolic response from Donald Trump decades later. Supposedly Donald was reassigned from a direct command role in his academy to a support staff role because he had overly delegated his authority, resulting in hazing of a younger cadet, who complained. As the reporter for the Post requested comments for the story in 2015, Donald Trump vehemently denied that his reassignment was due to a fault of his own, and he insisted on contacting his then 89 year old instructor from military school and asked him to refute what the Post reporter had discovered. When I saw that story and realized that here was a man running for the office of President, yet so incredibly insecure that he had to refute a story from military school days over 50 years ago, making multiple calls to the Washington Post to refute these allegations, I realized the boy was still firmly in control of the man.

Look at the business career he so proudly wears around his ego. Rules obviously were meant for others, not him. In the 1970’s, the real estate management company he shared with his father was sued by the US Justice Department (see, he’s had reason to not like Justice for a long time) for racial discrimination. His response to the complaints, made years later, was that they didn’t rent to any welfare cases, black or white. He didn’t like the new rules imposed from without, and thus did not deign to follow them.

He never had to answer to anyone else other than lenders during his family company’s existence. He touts his business acumen, but since his companies are private, not public, he never had to answer to shareholders, or a board of directors, or the SEC. No, he was able to shield the public’s eye from the internal financials of the Trump empire, except for those six times when he was forced to restructure debt from his real estate dealings through bankruptcy court. Of course, looking back, it does look rather foolish to have purchased two casinos in the limited gaming market of Atlantic City, then building the Trump Taj Mahal in the same market. Since Donald has never demonstrated an ability to think strategically, who could have foreseen that his new trophy to his ego would cannibalize revenues from his other two Atlantic City casinos? And who could have foreseen the growth in gambling facilitated by states throughout the nation, thus dooming Atlantic City properties to gambling irrelevance? Actually, just about any developer who had an ounce of common sense would have realized that doubling down on Atlantic City was going to generate only fool’s gold. But somehow, even with these failures, the Trump brand grew in status.

Donald hit his stride when he realized the value of his name exceeded his own ability as a developer. By using his brand name, he could leverage his influence by allowing him to manage properties without running the risk of financing these properties. Then came the breakthrough that solidified his status in the eyes of a gullible nation. “You’re Fired” evoked the image of a forceful leader who dispensed his wisdom in boardroom settings without his ever having to get his hands dirty. He had it made! He had the highest rated show in TV history! Women kept fawning over him – and all he had to do was begin to kiss them, he couldn’t help himself. Everywhere he looked, people were deferential to him, people worshiped him, people surrounded him to bask in his charisma.

Except, sadly, it was not enough. It was not enough that only those who watched his TV show paid him the homage he was due, he wanted his wisdom and wit to grace everyone in the nation. Nay, everyone in the world must recognize this super genius who could solve the world’s problems by himself, if only he could grasp the reins of power. The new tools of social media allowed a way for his brilliant thoughts to flow directly to his followers. He used Twitter since 2011 to expound his fantasy that President Obama was not born in the US, keeping himself in the public spotlight. And then, the fateful escalator ride in 2015 where he announced that he was inflicting himself on all of this nation, he made his Presidential announcement. He was grasping for the brass ring that would fulfill him. Life was good.

Be careful what you wish for. You just may get it. So it was with Donald Trump. Despite all odds, his spoken thoughts resonated with a nation that was desperate for a reversal of economic trends that had been in place almost all of Donald Trump’s adult life. There were enough people who believed in the man despite (and in many cases, because of) his bluster and take no prisoners style during the campaign, to elect this man to the office he sought. And now, for the first time, Donald Trump discovered limits imposed upon himself.

He swiftly learned that the Justice Department worked for the nation and under the Constitution, and didn’t serve as the President’s legal arm. Recusal by Jeff Sessions against any investigation of malfeasance in the campaign was taken as a personal slight, that to this day has not been forgiven. concept of an independent judiciary chafed at him, as legal challenges to his travel bans prevented his signature policy goal from taking effect. Then Congress pushed back, and the vagaries of party politics prevented passage of the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act.

And then, horror of horrors, an independent counsel was appointed. Someone outside of the control of Donald Trump, whose charter was to pursue illegal activities through the campaign, and even before the campaign should these activities be found relevant. Soon, targets of the investigation began to be charged, yet still Donald Trump kept chanting his “No Collusion” mantra. But pressure kept mounting as more and more of his colleagues and appointees either were drawn into legal jeopardy, or demonstrated administrative incompetence through petty purloining of public funds.

Now, this week, with raids by the FBI on Michael Cohen’s residence and office, the next to the last line of defense for this President has been breached. All the sins of the past are about to surface, and the truth will be revealed to the American public. Only, will the American public believe truth once they see it? Has the relentless campaign by Donald Trump to diminish and demean the press and the institutions of the Justice Department succeeded sufficiently where even if clear evidence of misdeeds is revealed, not enough of the base of this man will care? And this Congress, while it still resides in Republican control, will it exonerate Donald Trump before his high crimes and misdemeanors are given a full and just hearing before the eyes and ears of the nation? I hope not, but in this post-truth environment, I fear the worst.

Whatever Happened To The Door-to-Door Refrigerator Magnet Man?

Magnet 1

He called on us in our old house, back around 1991. A slight, stooped man, with hollow cheeks and limited teeth, bringing his wares. He peddled little refrigerator magnets, made out of popsicle sticks, colored felt cut into seasonal shapes, and accented with sequins. He spoke up apologetically, deferentially. “I’m selling these magnets. My daughter is disabled, she makes these, and I go around and sell them. Could you help us out?”

His plain clothes were well-worn, but clean. It was impossible to tell his age, but he looked well over 70. Around here in West Virginia though, people sometimes age at an accelerated rate, so I never knew his age the first time he came around. I bought one of his magnets, a bright yellow felt Christmas tree, and paid him a few dollars that I had in my wallet. He said “Thank-you” and left.

A couple years later, we had moved from Charleston to South Charleston. The same man appeared at our door one day, with his stock of felt magnets. This time, it was a rabbit since it was spring, and Easter was around the corner. The same story about his daughter, and saying how he didn’t want to ask for help, but if we wanted one of his magnets, he’d love us to have one. Again, we bought one for our refrigerator.

Now, these magnets barely had enough strength to hold themselves up, let alone hold any other papers. But the sincerity of this man shone through as he walked the hilly streets of Charleston and South Charleston. Though it was less than two miles as the crow flies between our old and new house, it was several miles further that this man walked, selling his wares and trying to make enough money to support him and his disabled daughter.

This man showed up several more times over the years. Sometimes it was in the heat of summer, and we invited him in and gave him some cool water, as well as buying another magnet. Sometimes, we may have even given him a few dollars without taking one of his magnets, telling him that we already had several. I don’t know how many times he showed up over the years, or how many magnets we bought from him. We still have three of his daughter’s creations gracing our two refrigerators. But just by seeing his face at our door, after months or years of absence, he bore witness to the strength of family, putting himself out on his strenuous walks just to try to make a few dollars.

magnet 2

 

You always notice the presence of something. You notice when a storm comes, or when the sun breaks through the clouds and brings it’s life-giving warmth. You notice the normal traffic on the streets and roads that you drive. What is difficult is to notice the absence of something. In the case of the magnet man, it was probably several years of absence before we brought it up that we hadn’t seen the man for a while. Now, looking back, it has probably been at least 10 years since we last saw the wizened face, with his handful of colorful magnets gracing his gnarled hands. We never saw any mention of him in any local news, although he certainly was known to many of the residents of the Charleston area. No obituary of him caught my attention, although I wasn’t paying as much attention to obituaries 10 years ago as I do now. It will always be one of those mysteries of life that, should we have an afterlife with the ability to form questions and receive answers, one of those questions would be what ever happened to the man who sold us magnets?

 

A Day In The Life Of The King

game-of-thrones-1722710__340 For those who are fans of the Game of Thrones, my condolences on presenting this work. You will need to be familiar with that series to capture the flavor of this post.

The King sat up in bed. Once more, he could see the opponents to his rule taken down by his favorite soothsayers from Weasel. They just demolished the arguments of his opponents in the court by simply saying that his opponents were namby-pamby wusses! Serves them right.

The King decided that he’d had enough time in his royal bed and went instead to his throne room. There he brought out his royal proclamation device and sent his wisdom out to his masses of adoring fans. He thought for a brief moment, “What should I say today?” Then he bent over on his throne as he strained to remove yesterday’s cheeseburgers, and it became clear to him. He proclaimed, “Best movement ever. Economy is reely going now. Only the lame-o’s who are haters can’t see it. SAD!” He dispatched this brilliant thought bubble out to the world, and prepared for his very active day of kinging.

The Queen was off again in the winter castle. She seemed to be staying down there, where the oranges were fresh, more often than not. Maybe it was all of the other noble ladies who kept harping on the King’s indiscretions that were driving the Queen away. Whatever. It did make the King’s daily life easier if he did not need to pretend to care about Queen number 3. The King idly thought about someone who preceded him as a King. Something about six wives. “At least they can’t accuse me of locking her up”, he thought as he saw the photo of the current Queen on the wall.

The King sat down to his breakfast. He was careful to make certain he got fruit with his meal. The apple Danish should suffice, he thought. Washing the pastry down with his first diet Coke of the day, he got dressed in his royal robes. He paid especial attention to his cravat, as it bore his blood red color. Making certain it extended down below his waist, he ensured it created a commanding presence. His servant held out his royal jacket, which he slid his arms through the sleeves, letting it rest loosely upon his fantastic frame. Thus armed, he strode down towards his round room, arriving just after 10.

Scarcely had he sat down when he was consumed by a desire to use the electronic raven. He picked up the voice piece and instructed his servant to contact his counterpart in the Kingdom of the Snows. When the connection was made, he spoke into the voice piece. “Vlad? I just had to let you know, it was not personal when I threw out your jousting party.” He listened for a brief period of time. “Yes, I know they had been looking forward to our tournament later this year.” Vlad apparently was making quite a point in reply, and the King pulled the voice piece away from his ear and his face assumed a grimace, before he returned the voice piece towards his mouth and ear. “I know, Vlad. You know how it is when you have to appease the court, right? If it was up to me, I’d start lopping off some heads, but my advisors have told me some bad things might happen if I did that.” Once more, he waited while Vlad continued with his side of the  discussion. Finally, the King said “I’m glad you understand. You and I, we understand each other. That’s good. I wish I could convince my advisors that it would be better if we just got along”. He hung up the phone, then sat back in his throne chair, leaning back and flexing his fingers against each other while he assumed a pleased expression.

After a brief period of reflection, he flicked on the sound box to summon his assistant. “Send in my jester.” It took a while for the jester to appear, so the King used the time wisely to practice his ball stroke, trying to coax the white ball into the hole on his green carpet he had placed atop the tapestry of power that lay on the floor of the rounded room. He heard his assistant open the door, and say “Sire, Jeff the Jester is here.”

“Good, send him in.” The King laid down his stick and went back to this throne chair behind the desk. Jeff the Jester came in, dressed not in motley but in a subtle blue suit. Only his projecting ears and small stature evinced his true nature as a member of the King’s assemblage. “Jeff, share with me something that will give me mirth,” the King commanded.

Jeff smiled as he cantered up to the desk. “Sire, we just stuck it to California. We told that libtard mayor of Oakland she was an embarrassment to the nation as she warned the alien wildings of the upcoming raids.” Jeff did a quick twirl of joy, then followed with “But what was best, I fired McCabe. I fired McCabe just two days before he was set to become a mooch off of the taxpayers by qualifying for a pension. Sire, I just wish I was around to see his face when he realized that his plans for a comfy life were in vain. I just wish.”

The King broke out into a broad rictus smile. “Jeff, I knew there was a reason why I kept you around. You really made me smile.” The King summoned his assistant. “Fetch me another diet Coke, and bring one for our Jester as well.” The King turned to Jeff. “So what will you be working on next?”

Jeff picked up the balls that were in the cup on the floor and began to attempt to juggle. Since he was an incompetent juggler, they soon were scattered all over the room. He looked back at the King. “I’m trying to come up with a way to silence the imp,” he said.

Just at the mention of the imp, the King’s expression totally changed. “Out. Out I say,” and he stood up, pointing at the door. “If you hadn’t said you had no power over the investigation, we never would have had that imp appointed. I should take you out and flay you.”

Jeff the Jester cowered as he backed away towards the door. When he reached the door, he bolted through it, knocking over the servant who bore two cans of diet Coke on a silver platter. The brown nectar fell and soaked the carpets. The King’s rage extended to his servant. “Up. Up you clumsy oaf. Go get something and clean up the mess you made.”

The King strode out of the room and went down the hall to consult with his hand. “Jared, where do we stand on getting the Palestinians to agree to peace?”

The King’s hand stood as the King entered his office. The King had begun bellowing his request while he was still in the hallway, so Jared was not certain he had heard the whole question. Through long experience, though, he knew better than to ask for clarification. Asking for more information was a sign of weakness, and would bring the wrath of the King down even on him. So he gave a non-committal response. “The Palestinians are not talking to us now. But I expect things to be better soon.”

“Hmmph” was all the King said, as he strode out of the room and went back to his round room. Once there, he summoned his assistant. “Go get me that guy with the name like a king, deals with diplomats. I need him.”

The assistant quaked while he dared to deny the King’s request. “Sire, you fired Rex a couple of weeks ago. The Senate has not confirmed his replacement. Do you wish to talk to the deputy?”

The King looked up, with a perplexed look on his face. Then, “Oh, that’s right. I forgot. Ok, then, fetch me my hound. And bring me another diet Coke.”

The assistant said, “Do you mean the Mad Dog?”

“Yeah. Have him come here. I’ve a question for him.” Since it would be a while before the Minister of War made it to the office, he decided to watch his mouthpiece speak for him on Weasel. He’d had several mouthpieces since he became King. Seems like none of them could deal with the questioning throng like he wanted. But this woman, she seemed like she was better than most. The King wondered what this woman would look like in armor, since she had a frame that looked suited better to plate than to Dior. But he soon grew bored listening to the questions that kept coming, even though his mouthpiece parried each thrust away.

The Minister of War arrived in the office. He carried a folder full of illustrations should any of them be needed in order to make the King understand. The King was gracious. “Sit, sit down. How’s the wife?”

The Minister spoke, “She’s do…”

“Good, good,” the King interrupted. “Look, the reason why I called you here was that I keep hearing about these dragons that this King of Poverty has developed. I hear tell that these dragons can even reach our shores. Is that true?”

“Sire, we believe that it is possible that a dragon unleashed from their kingdom could reach our shores. They have hatched several dragons over the years.” The Minister opened his folder to show a map with dragon tracks flying across the open waters. “We’ve analyzed the potential, and here we show…..”

The King interrupted again. “I don’t care about any analyses. I use my gut to analyze. We can’t have this King of Poverty threatening us with his dragons. Why can’t we use our own dragons to neutralize him?”

The Minister was taken aback. “Sire, we would not want to unleash our own dragons, even upon our worst foes. Do you know what sort of damage a dragon would cause?”

The King snorted. “Why do we keep on breeding them if we never unleash them. I want a proposal in two days about how best to unleash our dragons on the Land of Poverty.” He waved his hand, indicating that the audience was through. The Minister of War backed out of the room, and turned to go away through the door.

The King sat back in his throne chair, and drummed his fingers atop the desk. He glanced at his watch, saw that it was already after 4 o’clock. “Not much point in getting into anything else” he thought. He summoned his assistant and said, “I’m going back up to the royal chambers for some sovereign time. Have me paged if there is a matter of great import.”

Once up in his royal chamber, he summoned his meal. Two cheeseburgers today, with fries. And two scoops of ice cream for dessert. He donned his royal bathrobe and awaited his sumptuous repast. He turned on Weasel, but they were blabbering on about some weather emergency that didn’t mention him by name, so he grew bored. He switched to another channel which was showing a story about another kingdom, one where they kept out the alien wildings by means of a 700′ wall of ice. He was tempted to use his royal proclamation device to extol the benefits of building the wall out of ice, out there in the desert. Oh, heck, why not. “Build the wall! Use ice to keep the evil alien wildings out! And it’ll create free air conditioning for the border! SMART!” His last royal proclamation went out just as he finished the last of his ice cream.

The King went to sleep fully content. He’d had many strokes of luck that day: He hadn’t been sued by one of his now forgotten flings; he hadn’t needed to face the scribes; he’d had an extra scoop of ice cream at dinner … He’d thought of a new way to build the wall and enjoyed doing it… A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy one. There were one thousand four hundred and sixty-one days like this in his term. From the first swearing in to the last turnover to his successor. One thousand four hundred and sixty-one days. The extra day was for the next leap year.

Chemicals I Have Known (and Made) – Hydrogen Cyanide

hcn

As I look back on my career in industry, I realize that I became inured to the chemicals I dealt with and produced. I will be posting occasionally on some of the materials I worked with and made during the first part of my career. The first chemical I worked with was hydrocyanic acid – a simple molecule consisting of a hydrogen atom, a carbon atom, and a nitrogen atom (HCN). This molecule is so simple that there are molecular clouds in space where HCN is found, released from stars that have synthesized carbon and nitrogen in their core. But HCN has a well-known reputation as a poison, one that prevents oxygenated blood from being able to deliver their life-giving load to cells. Once oxygen transport ceases, energy production in a cell stops, and the cell and the organism that contains the cell dies.

 

So at the chemical plant I worked at, one of the requirements to work in the cyanide area was to ensure that I could detect cyanide leaks so I would not wander into an area with a fatal concentration. This was done by means of a sniff test. Three beakers of water were set on a tray. Two were plain water, and the third had a concentration of cyanide in it that resulted in small amounts of cyanide vapor in the air above the beaker. To pass the test, you had to tell which beaker held the cyanide. The first time I took the test, I was guessing somewhat. None of this “bitter almonds” smell, just something that was a little off. By the last time I took the test, almost 10 years later, I picked up the beaker with the cyanide and before it made it halfway to my nose, I put it back down on the tray and said “That’s the one.” What was originally too faint for me to be certain had become so overwhelmingly repugnant over the course of a decade that it gagged me.

 

Cyanide. What’s it good for? Hydrogen cyanide is used in quite a few chemical processes as a feed stock. One of the chemical processes is used to make another chemical called methyl methacrylate (MMA), used in acrylic paints and in plastics like Plexiglass. My chemical plant made MMA as well, but that’s a story for another day. The other main use of cyanide was to make sodium cyanide, which is used in the mining of precious metals. Sodium cyanide solutions are able to leach small concentrations of gold, silver, and other precious metals out of ore, allowing it to be concentrated and extracted into product. Our plant produced sodium cyanide as well as HCN. Some HCN is shipped to other locations for use. When it was shipped, the tank cars that contained it were painted in a distinctive manner. They had red stripes on them – one that circled the car lengthwise, and one that circled the circumference of the car, forming a cross on both sides of the car where the stripes collided. These cars were called candy stripers in the trade.

 

Hydrogen cyanide is produced when ammonia, natural gas, and air are heated and passed over a platinum – rhodium gauze mesh. The off-gases are then absorbed, and the cyanide produced is concentrated and purified. At our plant, HCN was stored in tanks surrounded by dikes. One of our safety features was flare guns mounted on posts throughout the tank farm. If the worst happened, and liquid cyanide were to leak out onto the surface of the dike, folks were instructed to fire a flare gun and set the liquid on fire. HCN is volatile (78ºF boiling point), but the vapor will not explode. Instead, it will undergo a deflagration where the combustion wave front is slower than the speed of sound. Other gases like methane will explode, where the combustion wave front is faster than the speed of sound, which causes the pressure wave that creates damage in an explosion. So for HCN, it is much better to let it burn and eliminate the toxic vapors evaporating from the liquid surface.

 

One day in 1979, I was out at the plant on a Saturday. I remember that Dr. Jenks was there on that day as well, and he invited me into his office. Dr. Jenks was one of those older generation chemists who knew everything about the chemistry and processes. He had a wooden box in his office, about 18″ on the narrow sides, and about 10′ long. In that box was the replacement platinum/ rhodium gauze for the catalyst change. At that time, when precious metal prices were at a 30 year high, his office held about 2 million dollars in platinum and rhodium. I was impressed.

 

My main job in manufacturing support was in the waste treatment process. As you can imagine, the waste water from these cyanide processes needed special treatment and segregation from other waste water. The “state of the art” water collection system consisted of cypress lined trenches, with cypress boards covering the top. This ran downhill to the bottom of the plant, where we had the Trade Waste water treatment facility. Waste water came into a collection point, where sodium hydroxide was added to make sure that the water was basic. If cyanide ions were in an acidic solution, cyanide vapor would be released above the solution, and that is not a good thing. So once the pH was adjusted to make the waste basic, then it would be mixed with liquid chlorine. Our plant produced sodium metal and liquid chlorine, so we had only to send the chlorine down a pipe to the water treatment plant, and mix it in with the waste water. When the chlorine hit the basic water, it produced chlorine bleach solution (sodium hypochlorite). Bleach attacks the cyanide and converts it to a non-toxic degradation product. To ensure that the reaction took place, after treatment the water was diverted into what were called 8-hour ponds. These ponds were on either side of the treatment building, and were unlined ponds where the water was held until the reaction was complete. Then the water was released into a baffled chamber called the one hour pond where it was analyzed to make sure that all of the cyanide was destroyed, and after the last test, the water was combined with the other sewer waste and went into the City of Memphis sewage treatment system. Unfortunately at the time, our interceptor sewer did not hook up to the sewage treatment system, and the water along with all of the domestic wastewater was discharged directly into the Mississippi River. Environmental protection has definitely improved in the 40 years since I was working in this process.

 

I would imagine that the staffing situation for the Trade Waste process has also improved. Back when I worked at the plant, there was a single operator who was stationed at the treatment plant. This individual sat in a central control room, and on either side of the control room were the chlorine injectors with the liquid chlorine flowing through them. Now, I don’t know about you, but I would be hesitant to work by myself, with cyanide-laden waters and liquid chlorine surrounding my office, but back in the late ’70’s, I didn’t think as much about the implications of what could go wrong. The plant had a safety procedure where the person working in a remote location had to check in with the main control room at least once per hour. Believe me, at that time, so much could have gone wrong in an hour’s time that the operator could have been dead for 59 minutes. But it never did at that facility during at least the first 30+ years of operation. Looking now at the facility on Google earth, it is obvious that they have made significant changes and improved the safety of the treatment operation. But some of the facilities look similar to what I worked with 40 years ago.

 

There’s much more I could go into. Cyanide has some amazing chemistry, and the waste treatment is almost an art unto itself. I did some large-scale testing there where we added a hydrogen peroxide waste stream that was what I considered to be fun chemistry. But it was definitely a good process to work on for my first real production support for making a nasty chemical.

Still Crazy, After All These Months

Trump's world

Fourteen months ago, the Trump administration took office. The American electorate selected a novice politician as their executive leader. This leader extolled his business acumen, his management skills, his abilities to only hire “the best people”. The voters of this nation, having grown used to the presence of this actor from his television reality show, ignored the baggage that he brought to this office. Baggage of multiple business bankruptcies. Baggage of two failed marriages, and the baggage of a reputation for womanizing. Baggage of a history of making money through the expedient act of not paying local craftsmen for their honest work. Baggage of sponsoring a bogus real estate course offering expectations of great insights from the master developer, only to instead offer bait and switch courses where for a few thousand dollars more, course participants could get the next level of knowledge. Baggage of over 3,500 lawsuits filed against Donald Trump and his affiliated companies over the course of his career. Baggage of egregious racist attitudes exemplified by his crusades against the falsely convicted Central Park 5 defendants and his outrageous birther claims against President Obama. Still. He was elected as President of the United States despite this pitiful record.

So why is it now, fourteen months later, do I have the feeling that I’m revisiting a 1930’s movie with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, only instead of “Hey, let’s put on a show!”, I believe that the rank amateurs in this administration decided, “Hey, let’s put on a Federal Government !” I can see the facades of the scenery being constructed for the big musical numbers, err, the big cabinet meetings that is, with the cheesy dialogue coming from the cabinet members pouring out laud and honor upon he who must not be criticized. Why is it that this supposed genius at personnel management managed to hire people better suited for roles as parking valets than as government managers?

I hear his supporters keep claiming that he’s accomplished so much, and all of the media and coastal elites just keep harping on the same old things, can’t get over the fact that Hillary lost, just shut up and take it. OK. Fine. Hillary lost. Apparently enough voters from enough states wallowing in the echo chamber of social media (soaking in a Russian dressing marinade) selected this candidate to enable him to succeed in the electoral college. I’ve seen all of the graphics showing that Trump won the overwhelming amount of land area and the county count. Guess what? This nation has turned into an urban nation, and it is in the urban centers that the repudiation of Donald Trump was at its strongest. Only the Electoral College was in favor of Donald Trump.

As far as Donald Trump’s incessant claims that his administration has accomplished the most of any first term President in his first year, I realize once more that he lives in the delusional world of his own making. I count his successes in his first year at exactly two – first, the nomination of Neil Gorsuch and his confirmation by the Senate, second, the extremely tortuous path to an upper class and corporate tax cut foisted upon the American public late in 2017. What are some of his failures in his first year as he played his role as President?

  1. Repeal and Replace. Easiest thing in the world (who knew that health care was so hard!).
  2. Witch hunt! Seems to me that the witch hunt is getting closer and closer to unraveling the webs of deceit and deception surrounding the unnatural ties between Trump and Russian influence and money. We shall see what we shall see.
  3. Infrastructure week 1. Infrastructure week 2. In what should have been the easiest sell in the history of Presidential politics, can anyone enunciate what infrastructure policy Trump is advocating and how that is going to restore the nation to greatness?
  4. Let’s all sing like the birdies sing. Tweet, tweet tweet, tweet tweet. Enough said.
  5. I only hire the best people. Yeah, the best people who manage to trip all over themselves in justifying exorbitant plane fares (in first class I don’t get yelled at by the people affected by my policies), the people who can’t figure out how to comply with instructions on how to fill out forms for security clearances, people who beat their spouses and can’t get security clearances but still remain on the job until their actions get unwanted press. I can keep on going as long as you have patience to read examples of incompetence, but still I think the Mooch has the unbeatable record of being fired before he actually took over a position within this administration. I don’t know how you can ever top this as a signal accomplishment of this totally incompetent President.
  6. There’s good people on both sides. Ah yes, the moral equivalence proposition that neo-Nazis who paraded down the streets of Charlottesville in their khakis and polos carrying their tiki torches and chanting anti-Semitic slogans were just as good as those who marched to protest the neo-Nazis. And yes, I am aware that there were antifa provocateurs who provoked attacks from the neo’s. But they didn’t drive cars through crowds of protestors, mowing down victims mindlessly.
  7. Diplomats? We don’t need no steenkin’ diplomats. While there is optimism that the Korean peninsula is not going to become a giant ball of nuclear flame, the American people (and the rest of the world) greatly prefer the use of diplomacy with an adequately staffed State Department to the vagaries of an adult with ADHD who decides on the spur of the moment to accept a summit invitation. What does it say when the leader of North Korea exhibits more maturity than the President of the United States? Welcome to our world.

I know that none of these arguments are going to sway those who are true believers in the complete imbecile now occupying the office of the President. I also know that the true believer who occupies the office of the Vice President is perhaps more dangerous, since he is an ideologue, and has demonstrated competence at government administration. The Vice President’s ideology is putrid, and his pronouncements would have the institution of a theocracy as one of his highest priorities. For all of Donald Trump’s failings, theocratic leanings are not one of them. Donald Trump has played the Christian card for all of the benefits he could get, being himself a card-carrying hypocrite. So there is danger in forcing the removal of this President, should the opportunity present itself. No, what I am doing is using whatever power I have in my words to keep shouting to the world how Donald Trump’s incompetence and narcissism is placing the security of the world at risk. And once more emphasizing to the American public that it is not a good idea to elect charlatans to the highest office in our land. Not that they care. Last time I checked, the Kardashian’s are still trending on social media. And of course, that is our highest priority, right?

Which Side Are You On?

Teachers strike nbc image

Photo Copyright NBC News

Pete Seeger sings this classic union song in 1981. Which Side Are You On?

The central Appalachians have been a hot bed of union activity for more than 100 years. The history of West Virginia is full of stories about the battle to unionize the coal mines, and armed battles that took place to enable workers to organize and gain a measure of power against the forces of capital. At the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, the US government actually bombed positions held by miners as part of the armed standoff. Eventually, the victory of the United Mine Workers was recognized, and the union became a symbol of worker solidarity and evidence of the continual struggle between management and labor.

Still, after the heyday of the union movement, over time the antipathy of the capitalist class toward unions gained more sway, especially with the general prosperity that evolved in the coal fields. Entire mining companies proudly declared themselves as non-union operations. The A.T. Massey company, led by the notorious Don Blankenship, was famous for breaking unions at their mines. Indeed, even in 2018, Don Blankenship is running for Senate in West Virginia fresh off of his stay in a Federal prison, claiming that he is a miner’s safety champion, as he runs ads extolling his generosity and the commitment to safety that Massey mines held. It was the government’s fault that 29 men died in a Massey mine, not management! Nowhere is it so evident that unions are far weaker than they were, reduced as it is to a faint whisper of their influence a century ago.

Which is why it is so surprising that the events of the past two weeks in West Virginia are resonating with the echoes of history in the hills around Charleston and throughout the state. Teachers in West Virginia walked off of their jobs beginning February 22, and as of March 3, have not agreed to return to work. This strike is not against a capitalist company, though. This strike is aimed at the Legislature of West Virginia, and Governor Jim Justice, who ironically is a coal magnate with mines throughout Appalachia. Over the past decade, the Legislature has reduced or eliminated a series of taxes in the state. Some of these taxes were regressive, like the sales tax on food. Some tax reductions were aimed at improving the business environment. But the net result was to reduce tax revenues by several hundred millions of dollars per year, and the promise of new businesses coming to take advantage of an improved business climate has not closed the revenue gap. Then, several years ago, the eastern steam coal market collapsed, as exports shrunk, and more coal-fired power plants closed down rather than comply with regulations aimed at minimizing the health and environmental consequences of coal combustion. A surfeit of natural gas from fracking also convinced utility companies that coal was not part of their future. Severance tax collections fell by hundreds of millions of dollars.

So for several years, West Virginia has dealt with tax revenues that declined over time, and this has necessitated on-going cuts in state programs and government spending. The deplorable state of this state’s highways bears witness to the sustained neglect of state services. The teachers of this state were squeezed from two directions. First, their base pay as set by the state, has not risen for multiple years. Second, the state-run health care insurance has repeatedly raised rates and deductibles, like most health insurance has over this decade. The general increase in rates was exacerbated this year by an ill-advised proposal that was to charge employees for health insurance based upon total family wage income, rather than by the employee wage. So a teacher who would have a moderate premium based upon their state salary, might be subject to pay twice as much if they had a spouse who had income but used the state health insurance. State teachers could foresee their pay going down to cover these premiums in a period of limited pay increases.

Teachers in this state are in essence fighting a proxy war for all state and local employees and retirees. All state employees are covered by the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA). So whatever changes that the teachers can cause, will apply to all of those in the state who are using PEIA.

This year, frustration boiled over. The proposed family income change, and other legislation aimed at diminishing teacher rights, collided with a minor pay raise proposal. For the first year since Republicans expelled the 80 year reign of the Democrats in the Legislature in 2014, there appeared to be growth in tax revenue projections. Governor Justice and the Legislators proposed a magnificent 5% pay raise, with the pay rates to be increased by 2% the first year, and 1% each of the next 3 years. No change was proposed in the PEIA rate structure.

Teachers rose up in rebellion. The job action finally began on February 22, and since that time, the steps of the Capitol Building have been covered by thousands of teachers with the #55Strong motto on shirts and signs (West Virginia has 55 counties). The chambers of the legislature have been packed, and the members of the legislature have been heckled with the calls of “DO YOUR JOBS”, and “WE WILL, WE WILL, VOTE YOU OUT!” echoing inside of the Capitol rotunda. It has been a remarkable scene reminiscent of the days of yesteryear, when the miners who were on strike became known as rednecks due to their use of red bandannas around their necks. Some of the current teachers are proudly wearing red bandannas now in honor of their labor past.

How will this end? At this writing, it is uncertain. The State Senate is maintaining its prerogative to slow track a bill aimed at granting a one year 5% raise, thanks to an opportunistic rise in revenue projections that just happened to show up. Teachers have said that it’s not the pay that’s the biggest problem, it is the funding for PEIA. As often happens once a conflict erupts, neither side is willing to budge, and the way out of the abyss is hard to see at this time.

 

Blair mountain

Photo copyright Jed Ward.

 

Spring Encroached Early

spring 2018

So far, the famed groundhogs of the east are not proving to be expert prognosticators. Here in South Charleston, WV, we had our first crocus out on February 15, and the daffodils started blooming on February 25. Some of the purple crocus have already shot their wad, and lie listless and limp on the ground. The early bees liked the pollen while it was available.

The picture above shows a scene from the front of our house. A purple crocus fronts the first blooming daffodils. Hellebore, or lenten rose, is blooming directly behind. For us, this is the best time of year for flowers since these are the flowers that our hooved rat interlopers will not eat. Soon there will be thousands of blooms open in our yard, and the next 6 weeks will be the peak time for our gardens. But there’s work to do, especially with the hellebores, since last year’s greenery that lasted through the winter, has now wilted and browned, and must be pruned away from the vibrant new foliage. So I must arouse myself from the winter induced stupor and take advantage of any dry and relatively warm days that we have. Of course, last week with its 81º temperature reading spoiled me for a normal day like today, back in the low 50’s.

I assembled the new deep bed raised bed for my vegetable garden. Three years ago, when I had just retired, I bought some inexpensive 4″ high cedar beds. They’ve reached the end of their useful life, and I bought a new one to replace the one in the middle of the three beds. Now I have to get the fabric liner purchased and installed, and the extra topsoil to mix with this year’s compost. Even though we have had exceptionally early warm weather, there will be later cold snaps that would nip early plantings in the bud. So it will be the second half of March before I plant any of the cold-loving vegetables.

I’ve already seen courtship dances with some of the birds in the area. I need to mend our bluebird house before our residents come back and are disappointed at the housing shortage. Still haven’t seen the robins come back. The earthworms and other bugs are out and about though. As I shoveled out the dirt from my old raised bed, I saw many worms and beetles emerging from their enforced inactivity. You wonder what a beetle may be thinking about as it sleeps under the earth in winter.

Another spring crop has emerged on our roadways. The traditional American Pothole is appearing in all of its pestilence. This year, the crop is especially large, since there were a significant number of potholes that weren’t fixed last year, so they over-summered and are larger than ever this spring. I’m hopeful that these pests are soon followed by the blooming of the orange road flowers, indicating the attempts to eradicate the American Pothole. Our state committed itself last fall to significant bonding to fix our roads, so we are hopeful.

It is always amazing how filthy things get over the winter. On our front porch, remnants of bird seed are scattered all over the floor, along with bird excretions. Broken branches mingle with the last leaves of the fall, and the leaves that fell after the last raking. Bunches of wild onions are poking their heads through the uncultured lawn. In all my years as a homeowner, I have never attempted to develop a perfect grass monoculture. I prefer diversity in my lawn, so I’m just as happy to see moss develop as I am to see fescue or bluegrass. I think the reason why at this time of year, my lawn is riddled with blooming crocus, is because I don’t use any herbicide at all on the surface. I’ve never known how crocus spread as much as they do – I may have planted some 25 years ago, but those few bulbs have multiplied by the hundreds now.

daffodils 2018

I expect more cold weather to come, and more snow and ice before the end of winter. But since we’ve already enjoyed frozen drinks on our front porch in February, we can bear the brunt of late winter’s onslaught. But please, bring on the spring!

Chaos Theory?

3 dollar bill

Here is a definition of the branch of mathematics known as chaos theory:

Chaos: When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.

Having survived the events of the past 13 months, I offer the following alternative definition of the field for your edification:

Chaos Theory – A study of the effects of the Trump administration, with special emphasis on the unintended consequences of the election of a particularly unqualified and immoral individual as President.

The theory posits this proposition: When a craven and narcissistic individual manages to exploit the weaknesses of his opponent, assisted by overt propaganda campaigns (some of which were Russian in origin), and this individual wins election, then this same individual will create a state of chaos in the government and in international relations due to the individual’s insistence that everything revolves around him. Ancillary effects include failure to perform constitutional duties involving protection of this nation from foreign adversaries. Other effects include performing carnival con games aimed at distracting members of the class that elected this individual by continually braying how good his accomplishments are, while delivering the largess of the Federal government to the corporate and plutocrat donor class.

The longer term effects of this experiment being conducted upon the American public are uncertain. If the experiment is to continue for a full term of four years, the potential impacts may be stated as follows:

  • Continued expansion of Chinese influence throughout Asia, Africa, and South America due to the abandonment of all US influence other than military power.
  • Ongoing degradation of existing infrastructure within the US due to the adherence of this administration to the principle that the only valid method of infrastructure restoration involves assigning private interests an ownership position in the restoration efforts.
  • Fomenting racial and cultural division by continually repeating lies and quarter-truths in order to justify policies of exclusion.
  • Developing a subgroup of the US population that steadfastly refuses to accept facts that contradict the brazen lies of both the leader of this administration, and all who shill for this individual.
  • Accelerates the decline of the US as a world leader due to the continual failure to recognize that the world has become interdependent. This failure to recognize the need for international cooperation will result in the abandonment of the US by other nations when US interests are threatened globally.
  • Eliminates all semblance of belief in scientific validity, thus enshrining policies that violate physical laws, and eliminating funding for scientific research. This also accelerates the decline of the US by allowing other nations to glom onto the growth engines of the global economy for decades to come.
  • Removes the economic growth that has always come from open policies for working within this country. By placing increasingly stiffer barriers against foreign students studying and then working in this nation, the US misses out on entrepreneurial energies of potential immigrants.

The list above includes only some of the potential effects of continuing this experiment within the body politic of the US. Part of the uncertainty involved with chaos is that there will be further unanticipated effects that will occur as a result of the seeds being sown by this administration. Given the direction and the effectiveness of this administration, it is apparent that the downside potential for the effects is much more likely than any upside potential.

One of the most disturbing effects of this experiment is that it is essentially an experiment conducted within another experiment. That larger experiment is the US republic, an experiment that has run for over 240 years. Some of the techniques being used by the current administration are testing the bounds of the Federal system enshrined by the constitution. In particular, the independence of the different branches of the government has ensured that no one branch gains ascendency over the others. This independence is being threatened by the trends developing within the Republican party of providing unswerving support of the executive branch, regardless of the harmful effects of the actions of the executive. By use of the feared twitter attack, this President has caused a phenomena within the Republican congress known as “toadying”. Once the poison toad has been licked, the tongues of those affected are capable only of providing statements of affirmation towards the administration, and declaiming those of any who speak ill of the President.

The current experiment may not reach a natural conclusion. During 2018 will come a checkpoint in the experiment, where those who pay the bill for the experimenters will indicate either their approval for completing the experiment, or will choose to apply constraints upon the unfettered excesses shown to date. It is even possible that the 2018 checkpoint will cause the experiment to be canceled due to changes that may come in the legislative chambers. Those who believe in the original US experiment are desiring that the legislative change happens, and serves as a stinging reproach towards the party that allowed itself to be hijacked by incompetence and immorality.

Green Bank Observatory Trips

Green Bank Observatory Picture from Google Earth

In a narrow vale between two folds of earthen ridges in eastern West Virginia, a man-made structure stands nearly 150 meters tall. This is the Green Bank radio telescope, a unique resource that is the largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world, with an antenna 100 meters in diameter. The radio telescope is at the heart of what was once called the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and is now run by the Green Bank Observatory. The facility is in the middle of a radio-free zone, where cell phones go to die, since there is zero cell service in this region.

The facilities at this observatory are not just for the use of professional scientists. There is a 40′ radio telescope that is available for use by school groups to learn the principles of radio astronomy, and the principles of scientific observation. I was fortunate enough to chaperone two groups of high school seniors from South Charleston High School (SCHS) on their overnight excursions to this wonderful resource. The International Baccalaureate Physics teacher at SCHS, Janet Richardson, arranged for this field trip annually. I went in the years that my sons were in her physics class.

When we reached the observatory, we had a lecture from one of the observatory staff who explained what we were going to be looking for. The 40′ telescope is now fixed in place, so it allows observations of what is directly overhead as the earth rotates. This means that you can see the galaxy rotating towards you for one part of the day, and you can see the galaxy moving away from you 12 hours later. If you have a radio telescope tuned to the correct wavelength, you can observe the emissions from hydrogen gas found in our galaxy. If you remember the Doppler effect from physics, and you think about train whistles, you will remember that as the train is coming towards you, the pitch is higher. Then when the train passes you, the pitch lowers. That is the same phenomena that the radio telescope is observing. As the hydrogen gas in the galaxy moves towards you, the frequency moves up – the signal is shifted towards the blue end of the spectrum. If the gas is moving away, the signal shifts towards the red. By taking measurements around the clock, you can see the rotation of the galaxy as measured from our position on one of the outer arms of the galaxy.

The 40′ radio telescope is one of the first telescopes within the quiet zone of the observatory. Once you enter the quiet zone, there are no powered vehicles except for old diesels. Spark plugs are capable of creating intense interference for the radio telescopes, so you see Checker cabs from the 1940’s and 1950’s available to transport people. There are some diesel vans as well that are used to move the students back and forth. You enter the quiet zone after passing by the start of the scale model of the solar system, with the inner planets grouped closely together. Then a significant gap, and finally the symbol for Jupiter appears on the side of the road. The gaps between the planets grows, and we reach our destination for observation halfway between Uranus and Neptune. The building that accompanies the 40′ scope is small above ground. Once you enter the door, you descend a short flight of stairs to come to the observation room. This is a scientific instrument history display, but all of the analog dials and gauges and chart recorders are still working. I probably used similar chart recorders back in my college days in the 1970’s.

green bank solar system model

The room where the measurements are taken has been used by various school groups for decades. Mementos of these groups can be found scrawled on the ceiling beams, and the wall beams, where you can see which colleges, and which high schools left their mark for future students to see. The students have been instructed on how to tune the receiver to the correct frequency bandwidth, to start the chart recorder, and to begin their observational period. They move the frequency detector manually through that range, and the chart recorder shows the response. Hydrogen gas, if it is not moving relative to the observer, will emit radiation at 1420 mHz. If it is moving towards the observer, the frequency will increase, and if moving away, the frequency will decrease. As they step through the frequency range, all of a sudden the antenna picks up the signal from hydrogen, and the chart pen goes up. The height of the response is proportional to the concentration of hydrogen being observed. The students move the frequency through the entire assigned range, and the pen comes back down to the baseline. Thus completes one set of measurements. Each group of students makes two observations over the course of their stay.

The first year I went, Janet asked me to stay with the students through all of the late night observation shifts. So while each student only got to see one measurement in the middle of the night, I got to see multiple hours of observation, and really got the sense of seeing the motion of the galaxy in real time. But once the last group of students took their measurements, I was ready to go back to the bunkhouse where the boys in the group were sleeping. The accommodations are not spartan, but the dual rows of bunk beds do not allow for any privacy. They do enable a bit of mischief, like the spray cheese some of the boys put on the hand of another sleeping student, ensuring that when they tickled his face, he would smear the cheese all over his face. I, being a sound sleeper, heard none of this mild mischief.

On my second trip to the observatory, we saw the place where conspiracy theorists (the tinfoil hat crowd) would love. We got to go inside of a room-sized Faraday cage. A Faraday cage is an enclosure that does not permit electromagnetic radiation of certain frequencies to enter or leave. This is where the computer equipment is for the observatory. Since the antennas are so sensitive to stray radiation, the computers have to be totally shielded away from the antennas. The walls, ceiling, and floor are all impregnated with a copper mesh. There are holes in the mesh, because they are only concerned with blocking radiation of certain wavelengths and the size of the holes in the mesh govern the size of waves that can escape.

For this middle-aged self-admitted science and astronomy nerd, the two days off work that I took for these trips were some of the better vacation days I ever spent. It’s now been 10 years since my older son took his trip. I asked both my sons about what they remembered, but it seems that the details of the science portion has been lost to the vagaries of time. I asked Janet what she had the class do with their measurements once they returned to the classroom, and she said that their task was to get an image of the galaxy by looking at their observations over the course of a day. I cannot express my appreciation to teachers like Janet Richardson, who help to ignite the spark of curiosity in classes of young men and women. She said that in the future, they may get involved in the programs that they have to discover pulsars. It’s a crowd-sourced project, where the data from observations are available, and interested volunteers can use their computers and software from the observatory to try to detect pulsars that have not yet been identified.

I noted at the first of this post that the observatory used to be known as the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. It was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). As part of the ongoing disinvestment in science that began years ago, the NSF no longer provides 95% of the funds for the facility. Up until late in 2017, it was even feasible that the NSF would call for the demolition of the telescope. But since that time, a compromise was reached that enabled the observatory to stand as a self-sustaining organization. The Green Bank Observatory now is partnering with universities, like West Virginia University, and is involved with several multi-year projects including Project Breakthrough Listen, which is surveying the million closest stars to us and looking for signs of intelligent life. But like all such facilities, the needs for funds continues. If you would like to support the science programs of this unique facility that seeks to expand our knowledge of our origins, here’s the link to get involved:   https://greenbankobservatory.org/engage/