Gold Fever


Carl Sagan famously said “We are made of starstuff.” That is, the elements of life, the carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, iron, sulfur, and of course hydrogen, all come from the life processes of normal stars. Through fusion, there is a progression in the atoms that are forged within stars. Hydrogen begets helium, and later on in a star’s life, helium begets carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. Further fusion reactions occur within a star’s core, releasing energy until iron predominates at the core of the star, where the fusion reactions proceed. Iron, though, represents a dead end in the fusion process. Iron cannot undergo a fusion reaction that creates more energy than it takes to react. So the swollen mass of the red giant star that was inflated by the energy released from fusion reactions, suddenly collapses upon itself. The in-falling matter creates critical masses in the outer layers of the star, exploding in a new pressure wave that expels the outer shells of the star. Thus, a typical nova occurs in a galaxy far, far away (even novas in this galaxy are far, far away).

A typical nova (or even a supernova) does not have the capability to create the large number of high atomic weight elements like gold, or uranium, or platinum. To create these elements, it takes an even more spectacular event. One such event, the spiraling collision of two neutron stars, was observed on August 17, and three separate types of instruments observed the event. First, the new gravity wave detectors in Louisiana and Washington state, and one in Italy, picked up the signal of gravitational waves rippling through space. This was followed within seconds by the detection of high energy gamma rays by the NASA Fermi space telescope. Then, with the directional information available from these instruments, optical telescopes were able to pick up the visible light emanating from the collision of two neutron stars, creating nuclear synthesis of myriads of elements in a blaze of electromagnetic radiation.

For those who are not familiar with astrophysics, neutron stars are the remnants of a certain type of supernova that lost their outer shells in an explosion, and contracted into small balls of condensed neutrons. Imagine a star about 1.5 times the mass of our sun, but contracted into a sphere about 12 miles in diameter. The density of this material is incredible. A cubic centimeter (about the size of a sugar cube) would weigh 100 million tons on Earth. Neutron stars are not black holes, though. They emit both light and radio waves. In fact, the first neutron stars were detected because they rotate incredibly fast. Slow ones rotate in little more than a second, while fast ones rotate hundreds of times per second. They can be detected by the radio waves they send out with each vibration. These types of rotating neutron stars are called pulsars.

So two of these neutron stars began a death dance spiral 130 million years ago on August 17. They spin together, faster and faster, until they actually collide, and then all hell breaks loose. Megatons of gold, platinum, uranium, and all of the heavy elements are formed from the intense bombardment of neutrons. These atoms form, cool, undergo nuclear reactions and form more stable isotopes that stream out into space. All of this matter spreads out, and settle inside of gas and dust clouds where gravity attracts them. Eventually, the gas cloud gains enough mass to start to collapse into itself, and a solar system with a new star emerges. The heavy elements from the neutron star collision are incorporated into the new planets. If there are enough of these elements in the gas cloud, and if intelligent life evolves on one of the planets, they discover these elements, and perhaps fashion them into rings, or necklaces, or fission bombs.

The detectors of the gravity waves are magnificent structures that bear homage to science and to the spirit of the countries that devoted resources to these instruments. Within the US there are two LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) facilities. These facilities are situated thousands of miles apart, in order to eliminate any local vibrations from giving false signals. They are L-shaped structures, and the lengths of the arms is 4 kilometers per side. The core of the instrument is a vacuum tube, with lasers and mirrors situated inside to cause a laser beam to split and bounce back and forth for hundreds of times before it is sent to the detector.

Normally, laser beams that are split in two and then travel identical path lengths, and then recombined can be positioned so that the beams interfere with each other perfectly, and no light is detected by an instrument at the end of the beam path. But if something affects the length of the path of one of the beams, then the total path length of the two split beams is not the same. When that happens, the photodetector sees a beam. The beam that is detected is affected by the difference in distance between the two paths. Gravity waves cause the length of the path to differ slightly and as the wave sweeps over the two detector beams, first one beam moves with the wave, then the second beam moves. How much is the movement that is detected? One ten thousandth of the width of a proton is the amount of displacement that is caused by a gravity wave.

Since there are now 3 gravitational wave observatories located in different parts of the globe, each observatory detects gravity waves at slightly different times. By comparing the time differences between the signals, scientists are able to triangulate and determine where in the sky did the cosmic event happen. Scientists had detected the merger of two black holes several times with the LIGO detectors, but the events of August 2017 was the first time that they were able to see an event occur in the electromagnetic spectrum as well.

At this time of year, you will see many ads extolling the virtues of giving a gift of gold. If you do buy a gift of gold or platinum for someone, take a moment to realize that the metal you are buying was formed in a cataclysmic collision billions of years ago, before our sun and planet were born. And marvel that we now have the ability to detect and understand our universe and the wondrous events that shaped our world.


You’ve Been Had!

3 dollar bill

A bill of goods. That is what this nation has been sold by the person of the current President of the US. We’ve been deceived, swindled, and taken advantage of by the administration as pledge after pledge has been negated by the actions taken by this President and his henchmen. And yet, his loyal followers hold out their bowls, and plead, “Please, sir, may I have some more?”

How have we been deceived? Let’s examine a few areas where the actions of the President after inauguration are in complete contradiction to the pledges made during the campaign. First, let’s tackle the series of statements he made about the obscene influence of Goldman Sachs upon his opponents in the primary and general election. In January 2016, Donald Trump declared Ted Cruz to be under the control of Goldman Sachs, due to a million dollar loan Cruz had obtained from the bank, but hadn’t disclosed on a financial disclosure form. That was followed by Donald Trump declaring that Heidi Cruz, Ted’s wife, was also complicit and a creature of Wall Street since she was also employed by Goldman Sachs. This was followed by the general election, where we were treated to the image of Donald Trump berating Hillary Clinton for being paid for speeches to Goldman Sachs prior to her run for the presidency.

So, good then. One would imagine that the administration of Donald Trump would be devoid of the evil influence of Goldman Sachs, since it was integral to the efforts to destroy this country’s economic might through its globalization efforts. Let’s check the record:

Steve Bannon – Chief strategist. Former Goldman Sachs banker, left the organization in 1990 as a vice president.

Steve Mnuchin – Secretary of the Treasury. Goldman Sachs banker for 17 years, left as Chief Information Officer in 2002 before forming various hedge funds and purchasing IndyMac bank in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008.

Gary Cohn – Director of the National Economic Council. Served as Chief Operating Officer for Goldman Sachs from 2006 until his appointment in 2017.

We could go on with links with the underlings in the administration who came directly from Goldman Sachs, but this should suffice to show that instead of purging the evil Wall Street influence from the administration, this President has infused fresh banking blood into the halls of government agencies where the levers of power are rigged to favor the wealthy instead of the typical Trump voter. You’ve been had!

Ok, then, maybe Donald Trump wasn’t able to accomplish his campaign goals of ridding the swamp of its evil banker’s mantle. Let’s look at another promise of this President, to hire only the best people for positions in his administration.

“I’m going to surround myself only with the best and most serious people,” he told Robert Costa in a phone interview at the time. “We want top of the line professionals.” This quote was from a  Sept. 2016 story in the Washington Post referencing an August 2016 interview. In campaign speech after speech, Trump boasted about knowing the best people and hiring only the best.

So how is this pledge working out? Well, splendidly, if your criteria is shortness of time within a position because one or more of these best people just didn’t work out. Let’s look at a few of the truly inept people that Donald Trump hired, only to busify them (busify – the act of throwing someone under the bus) within a few weeks or months of hiring.

Michael Flynn – the poster child for a Trump pick. Even while working on the campaign and after the election, this extreme version of incompetence was working with foreign players to enrich himself. When caught lying to the Vice President, his last lifeline was spent and he had to forfeit his National Security Advisor post

Tom Price – Supposedly his prescient knowledge of stock movements in a certain medical device stock had nothing to do with his position in the House as he introduced an act after the stock purchase that would have greatly enriched the company whose stock he had purchased. No, that type of dealing would have been welcome in the company of billionaires and wanna-be billionaires. Tom’s fatal flaw was having a predilection for chartered private jets that even the Trump administration could not stomach, after bills for hundreds of thousands of dollars emerged in the press. He was forced to leave his position as head of Health and Human Services.

Anthony Scaramucci – Mooch, we barely knew ye. Your tenure as the White House Director of Communications ended before it officially began. Over two weeks before he would have been sworn in, he was forced to not officially become the Director after giving an interview to a New Yorker reporter where he castigated several members of the administration in, shall we say, rather colorful language. One could make the case that he was actually communicating the occupant of the oval office’s feelings extremely well, since the targets of his language (Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon) were forced to leave White House employ shortly after the interview. Still, getting fired before you actually began the job represents a new peak in the (in)competence of Trump officials.

Sam Clovis – when you have a government agency that is responsible for billions of dollars in scientific research, involving the safety and integrity of the food supply, whom would you choose to lead this technically demanding position? Why, a former radio talk show host and a Doctor of Public Administration who happened to be the co-chairman of Trump’s campaign, of course. The fallacy of having a non-scientist appointed to a key scientific post never came to fruition, though. Unfortunately for Sam, he became associated with the self-admitted felon, George Papadopoulos. Sam becomes just another example of the best people that Donald Trump was able to attract.

Brett Talley – a name you may not yet be familiar with, but certainly a nominee for this august group of unqualified individuals appointed to government positions by Donald Trump. This individual has been nominated as a judge in the middle district of Alabama, and he has the unique qualifications of never having taken part in a trial, either as a judge, attorney, plaintiff, or defendant. Thus he is a complete tabula rasa, able to perform judicial duties without any preconceived notions. That must be why the American Bar Association gave Brett a rating of Not Qualified to be a judge. But did that matter to Donald Trump? No, especially since Brett’s wife is the chief of staff to the White House Counsel. Who needs stinkin’ qualifications when you’ve got the insiders track to the Donald’s ear? Just think, he may end up ruling over litigation affecting Roy Moore in the future.


Well, that’s just a partial listing of those folks who are excellent examples of “the best and most serious people” that Donald Trump pledged to attract to his service. We could give many more examples but space and time limitations prevent this.

To those who are Trump supporters, this is only the very first listing of the ways in which you’ve been had. There are many more examples of where Trump’s campaign pledges about helping the forgotten citizens have been turned on their head, and the policies being followed are harming the forgotten citizens, while enriching Trump’s true social class, the 0.01% club. This, the first missive in a series of posts about this administration, examines some of the personnel decisions that reflect the abysmal performance of our current President. You’ve Been Had!


Requiem, Aeternam


 Photo of the West Virginia Symphony Chorus.(from the WVSO web site)

You have to be a bit of a masochist to want to sing in a symphony chorus when you are over 60. We just completed performing the Verdi Requiem with the West Virginia Symphony, and over the past 3 days, we sang the choral parts or performed the 85 minute requiem a total of 5 times. Sat in the back of a bus going from Charleston to Morgantown, a 3 hour ride each way on Friday. Was shoehorned into seats on the stage – we had nearly 320 singers, soloists, and symphony members on the stage for last night’s performance in Charleston. About 250 of those were chorus members, waiting for their chance to sing Verdi’s dramatic and poignant melodies.

For us, the work on the Requiem began last spring, as we were finishing up the chorus year and received our copies of the work. We familiarized ourselves with the scores then, and followed up our introduction with a late summer workshop where we went through the entire work. Then each Monday evening after Labor Day we had rehearsals, up through this past Monday (November 6) for two hours. All of us undoubtedly put in extra time cuing up the Requiem on YouTube, working with our scores to help ensure familiarity with each difficult part. Then came the Thursday through Saturday marathon where it all came together.

There really is very little time to put together a massive work like this. The main reason is money – each session with the orchestra for rehearsal or for a performance must be paid. The orchestra musicians put in much more independent time with the scores, since they are professionals and are compensated for their work and time on stage. But the amateurs who are chorus singers had no opportunity to come together until our first rehearsal with the orchestra. We had 5 different choruses join forces for this work. Our Symphony Chorus, and the choruses from 4 different colleges and universities across West Virginia were all represented on the stage.

So on Thursday, we had little more than an hour to practice together without an orchestra, then the orchestra players came in after their contractually mandated dinner break. A 2 1/2 hour session on Thursday, then an afternoon session on Friday after our bus drive up. Two rehearsals was all that we had together as an ensemble to piece together this exquisite work.

Why do we do it? What motivates us to invest the time and energy and money in order to support our singing habit? I’ve seen much writing about music, and its energizing and motivating force. Let me just say that you’ve never felt music’s full power until you are sitting directly behind a professional orchestra, playing some of the most lyrical and powerful music ever written. Then you are invited, nay, urged to lend your voice to the mélange, and not only that, but to sing with full expression and full power as you plead with God to keep from sending you to the pits of hell.

This type of music is difficult. It is always a challenge to sing a fugue, where each vocal part is echoing the other sections, melodies intertwining throughout the section, and it can be devilishly difficult to keep on tempo, and have the correct Latin words come out of your mouth. The challenge is one of the main reasons for doing this – it is because you can, and you are confident enough in your own abilities that you believe you will not crash the concert due to your own mistakes. For although you as a chorus singer cannot make the concert wonderful on your own, each of us had the ability to create huge mistakes that would have ruined at least a part of the performance.

It is difficult to describe the connection between a conductor and a chorus, when both are in synch. The conductor has control of everything going on, and with a dramatic work like the Verdi, our conductor played up the dramatic pauses. We watched, totally engaged and concentrating, as he demonstrated when to begin a phrase where we sang a capella, and when to stop and place the final consonant. That is another reason to do a work like the Verdi, it forces you to concentrate and be fully alive in the moment. There’s not many experiences in life that engage you to that extent.

The main reason, though, that I continue to perform music like this is because it allows me to participate in the creation of beauty that represents the peak of Western civilization (in my opinion). Choral masterworks, especially those of a sacred nature, touch at human emotions in their most naked form. Pathos and pleading to God for mercy for our sinful nature. Lyrical melodies that will stay in my head for months and years as we sang about the lamb of God. Verdi was an opera composer, and is acknowledged as one of the best of all time, but many say that his Requiem was his greatest opera. To be a participant in a performance of such a work is exhilarating to the soul, even though it saps the body and causes knees to ache and feet to throb. That is why I said at the start that you have to be a masochist to participate in such a work, especially if you have a bit of wear and tear on your body. Singing is a physical activity, and the young, especially college students, are best suited to deal with its demands. I do not know how long I will be able to stand its challenges myself, but the rewards of creating and hearing beautiful music from the center of its creation is still worth the pains it creates.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Verdi Requiem, please go to YouTube and enter it. You will see hundreds of performances that have been loaded to the web. Try it, and if you have an ear for romantic music, you will fall under Verdi’s spell as I have.


Balanced Between Summer and Winter

fall Summer is hanging on doggedly, not wanting to surrender the stage to the coming frosts and freezes. We were able to enjoy cafe society and eat al fresco on November 5 in South Charleston, WV. Normally the tables and chairs are stacked up awaiting spring by this time at our favorite Mexican restaurant. We even followed our dinner up with a pitcher of frozen drinks in the early evening on our front porch, a bit of our own farewell to our rituals of summer. But each time I say that, along comes yet another warm spell, and we extend our outdoor living room’s life just one more day.

No, it is true, we are sliding inexorably into our cold season. This weekend was the peak for leaf color for us. The picture on the top of this post shows maple trees through our bay window. The plants we had on our front porch have migrated inside, where they will stay cozily on the wood of our bay window. All of the plants had grown significantly during the summer. We barely had enough room to place all of the foliage.

The cats have definitely noticed the change. We didn’t have the heat on until about October 20, but as soon as it came on, our cat Blinky assumed his post in front of the heating vent. It is this time of the year when the cat reminds me of my thermodynamics course describing black body radiation. He absorbs the heat from a warmer temperature, then reradiates the heat back into the room at a lower temperature once the furnace stops.


The cats are definitely slowing down with age. They are both just at 12 years old now, and they sleep much more, and are less eager to head outside, although yesterday they did share the warmth of the evening with us. The cats are about to have their lives upended, because on Thanksgiving week our younger son will be coming to visit, and will be bringing his 8 month old kittens with him. As my wife has said, there will be much weeping and gnashing of kitty teeth during this time. Should be fun.

The leaves are at peak, and since you can’t ever stay balanced on such a peak of color, the rain that we had overnight seemed determined to start stripping the golds and reds off of the branches. This is the time of year when I have to make the decision of whether to rake the same area multiple times, or wait for the large mass of leaves to fall before tackling the removal process. Since I abhor leaf blowers, it is the old fashioned arm power that gathers the leaves and carries them to the compost pile. I keep two piles going back behind the fence. One pile holds last year’s leaves and this year’s weeds, and it has decomposed down to a good powdery dirt. The leaves from this fall will enrich the vegetable gardens in 2019.

I’ll be making an investment in a deeper raised bed in one of our vegetable gardens. When I designed the gardens, I put in three 4’x4’x4″ beds in the space allotted. That did not leave enough space between the beds, and 4″ is not high enough to alleviate knee and back pain. So I will order a 3’x4’x15″ bed for the middle slot. One thing is for sure, you do not plan for a positive dollar return on investment with back yard vegetable gardens. The gardening infrastructure is pretty much just a sunk cost, but the benefits of picking your own produce makes it worthwhile. I figure out that if I get enough produce out to offset the cost of the seeds, it’s a good enough return for me.

I completed my annual task of digging up daffodil bulb clusters that had worked up to ground level. I spent an hour or so dividing them up into plastic bags holding a dozen bulbs each, and offered them to whoever wanted them after church one Sunday in October. I figure that I distributed about 750 daffodil bulbs this year, and hope that they bring smiles all over the valley once they bloom next spring.

In another week or two, the trees will be bare. They will hold no memory of what they looked like with their mantle of greenery. Their bare fingers extend into the air, awaiting the falling snowflakes they know are coming. And the earth will sleep until it awakens again in spring.