Petrified Wood and Petrified Brains

Wood from ancient West Virginia

My wife and I talked about visiting Cincinnati later this summer. There is one thing I am not allowed to consider, though. That is a repeat visit to the Creation Museum. I will admit I did go there once, and did manage to hold it together while I saw the full-scale replica of Noah’s Ark, along with all of the animals which supposedly sought refuge on the vessel. But as soon as I escaped the building, and entered the plaza where they sold ice cream, I broke out into uncontrolled laughter. So much so that my wife was afraid one of the armed guards would take exception to my merriment and provide a bit of a 2nd amendment solution. I did calm down, and tried to reflect on what I had just seen.

I had voluntarily paid for the privilege of seeing the literal interpretation of the Bible and the Old Testament stories displayed for my own faith to grow. Or at least, that was what was supposed to happen. Instead, I was the one who saw the convoluted logic displayed, which made it seem like the management of the museum really, really tried to fit the world into their tidy world view of total consistency with the Bible. One problem is the world is not that neat and orderly. Instead, it is an accumulation of acts and conditions that can trace their origin all the way back to the initial act of creation in the Big Bang.

My own house bears testimony to the impossibility of fitting all the niceties of the physical world into the 6,000-year saga of biblical history. You see, I collect petrified wood. As it turns out, there’s a strata of ground underneath this region that trapped fallen trees, hundreds of millions of years ago. And over the eons, that wood transformed into rock, tumbling out of the eroded hillsides and falling down to the creek beds below. Our front porches have displays of large chunks of petrified wood “artfully” arranged to greet any visitors. I used to go with my sons on expeditions down into the creeks where we would search for hunks of wood. I imagine they really enjoyed the freedom of splashing around in the water even if it came with the penalty of carrying the chunks of stone up the hillside to our house.

The large chunk weighs about 40 kg

But those who view the Bible as inerrant will discount the evidence laid out before them, no matter how persuasive it may be. To those believers, it is impossible for light to take millions and billions of years to reach us, because it is incompatible with a view of the universe not being over 6,000 years old. They discount use of radioactive decay as a tool to determine the ages of things in the past, since they enable ages to be traced back beyond the 6,000-year barrier where God created the heavens and earth and declared them to be good.

This tendency to believe only what you have been told is accurate even though the evidence of the eyes contradicts it, does not function only in a religious arena. Indeed, we are seeing an entire political party willing to overlook the evidence of their eyes, and claim the events of January 6 were a mere kerfuffle, not an event worthy of further investigation, and certainly not something to cause a critical eye to be cast upon those who instigated the crowds of January 6 and their violent storming of the Capitol building.

For four years, one section of the US public heard only that Democrats were evil, and as these claims met no opposition on the networks of the right, new beliefs were proposed stating the Democrats secretly were responsible for the huge surge in child abductions (really?), followed by satanic rituals of slaying these innocents for their adrenaline. Yet there was only a wink and a nod towards these purveyors of lunacy from those in authority. As long as judges could be confirmed who would bring America back to the pre-Warren years, they were willing to play along with the crazies. One problem. They never understood their words would instigate action, and they would have large crowds who took every word as inerrant, and a direct command. Rudy Giuliani may believe he was only being hyperbolic when he suggested “trial by combat”, but an entire sector of the public was already primed to act on the literal nature of his words.

The sector of the population who is willing to delegate their logical thinking to others is the sector calling for unending audits of past elections. Maybe we’ll find Chinese watermarks, or contamination of paper with bamboo fibers in the ballots, and can thus declare all votes cast null and void. I find it more than ironic that those who were on the victorious side in 2016, castigated anyone who dared to protest against the acts of the past President as having TDS. Yet the derangement evident today, where millions cannot accept the evidence of their eyes, resulting in endless rehashing of past elections, is viewed by them as a necessary step on the way of reinstating the true monarch of this nation. Talk about snowflakes! These partisans melt down if there is any doubt cast upon their outlandish conspiracies.

Way back in 2016, Hillary Clinton made the mistake that cost her the election. She put a name to the phenomena she saw in front of her. By declaring opponents as “deplorable”, she crystallized the opposition to her. Obviously, in her opponent’s perspective, she considered herself to be the better of those who didn’t share her beliefs. Well, she should never have said that word, but it doesn’t mean the words were false. It seems an entire political party has been hijacked by those whose world view does not permit them to hold any perspective other than what is provided for them. If it doesn’t have a simple solution, then give it one regardless. Fit the round peg into that square hole. It’s all they know.

Of Thermodynamics, and Sealing Wax, and Other Fancy Stuff

Power plant cooling towers venting waste heat

The gauntlet has been thrown down. The US needs to cut their carbon dioxide emissions by 50% by 2030, starting with a baseline of 2005. In order to accomplish this, real changes in the US economy must occur, along with some sacrifice by US citizens. And, the entrenched interests in continuing the status quo (energy companies, Republicans, utility providers) must be convinced of the necessity of this extreme action. Pretty difficult to do especially since the Republicans have made it their brand to not only dismiss the need for change, but they have proudly waved the banner of climate change hoax / no science to refute the claims of climate scientists. They have waved these banners for generations, and their influence will not go away, especially at the state and local levels.

First, it is necessary to present some simplified discussions of thermodynamics. This is the branch of physics which describes the limits nature imposes upon humanity. The first item needing description is black body radiation. Simply put, it means a body will emit radiation which puts it at equilibrium with the incoming radiation. Any disruption that affects the radiation balance will affect the equilibrium temperature. In our case, radiation from the earth is dispersed into the coldness of space. One is most aware of this phenomena on cold clear nights, but still above the freezing point of water, where frost forms on surfaces that are exposed to the vastness of space. Like, your car windshield which requires scraping when there’s no frost anywhere else.

The increase in carbon dioxide concentration (CO2) in the atmosphere affects this radiation balance. Put simply, CO2 absorbs some of the radiation that is escaping to space, and re-radiates it in all directions. The fraction that is radiated back to earth is radiation that increases the total amount of radiation earth normally receives. It increases the equilibrium temperature of earth, which is global warming. Since CO2 happens to absorb radiation in a range normal atmospheric components do not absorb, this means that CO2 exerts an outsized influence even though it is a minimal component of the atmosphere. Those who say that a small amount of this gas cannot affect the temperature of the globe are ignorant of basic physics and mathematics.

There is a second aspect of thermodynamics that comes into play with fossil fuels. That is the limitation in the amount of useful work that can be extracted from a high-energy fluid. All large-scale power plants depend upon a heat source (burning fossil fuels, nuclear fission, burning biomaterials) to heat and vaporize water to form steam. It is the steam that turns the turbines and results in the generation of electricity. Well, thermodynamics imposes a limit of about 50% peak efficiency for this type of power plant. You’ll have to trust me on this figure, since understanding and calculating the Carnot system efficiency is a staple of college engineering and science courses. There’s only so much explanation you can put into a blog post.

This says that whenever you have a concentrated source of energy being converted to another type of energy (combustion of fuel to electricity), you only get about 50% of the useful energy as an output. The rest is wasted as heat. Any time you convert one type of energy to another, there are losses involved. So why are folks so convinced that renewable energy sources are so necessary? One reason is that the conversion losses from solar and wind energy are much less than from a standard power plant. In the case of solar electricity, there is also much more potential for locating the power generation at the point of consumption. This reduces transmission losses.

The problems with renewable energy production? It’s variable. In the case of solar, it is guaranteed to not produce at least half of the time due to earth’s rotation. In the case of wind, it is at the mercy of the wind. Therefore, you need to either supplement renewables with a concentrated source of production, or you need efficient means of energy storage. While progress in energy storage is impressive, it is still expensive to use either battery storage or capacitors to bridge the gap between availability of renewable energy and consumption of that energy. The second problem with renewables is that you are depending upon a diffuse source of energy. The sun only shines so hard, and even wind turbines can’t compare to the energy density of a classical fossil fuel source.

The other problem with renewables is that they allow the consumer to bypass the utilities and the fossil fuel companies for some of the energy demand. While the prospect of going off the grid is extolled as an ideal, it is not practical for most people. We still need an energy infrastructure to cover those times when energy is required to supplement locally produced electrons. It is expensive to maintain and improve this grid, and what we’ve seen, especially with Texas, is that the grid can fail catastrophically if it is not maintained. So as much as we might want to be rid of giant monopolies governing our energy supplies, we need to construct a future system where they play a role, or else their looming obsolescence will cause them to resist any needed changes.

In my state of West Virginia, we’ve been in denial about the future of coal ever since I moved here in 1986. Coal was the exclusive source of electricity in this state for decades. Only with the increase in natural gas availability due to fracking did anyone in this state seriously doubt the moral goodness of coal, and of those who mined it. So we have suffered as local communities were shattered by the blasting needed to support mountain top removal. This form of mining only employed a small fraction of the workforce needed for an underground mine, but when it is all you know, you put up with a lot. We now have many acres of once pristine woodland and hillside covered in scrub grasses, devoid of topsoil, and unable to sustain much life. Such places would be ideal for solar farms, and slowly this state seems to be growing aware of this possibility.

West Virginia has suffered population loss for decades, ever since the coal mines first became mechanized. What better way to offer hope to the youth who now succumb to opioids than to provide jobs in solar energy? Education to enable people to learn the basics of electrical installations would raise the general education levels in this state. We must resist the siren song of reversing coal’s decline, and embrace the trend towards renewable energy that is the wave of the future. No matter what the Republicans say.

No Vaccine For Me, Please

So now we wait for the unintended consequences. Now that the US CDC has removed the requirement for masking in most situations for those who are fully vaccinated (or vacciminatedified as my elder son says), what can we expect to see going forward? First off, those governors including our own in West Virginia will be under extreme pressure to remove any masking mandates. This has already taken place in West Virginia as of May 15. Second, we can expect non-governmental groups like my church bureaucracy to relinquish their limits on in-person services (and perhaps on singing in church as well).

But the primary consequence is that there will be a low level of severe coronavirus continuing to circulate through the population since the virus will still have plenty of unvaccinated people to attack as we go through the months and years to come. If you look at the Venn diagram of those who will not get vaccinated, and those who have resisted masking, you will see a very good overlap. So those who have not been vaccinated will not follow any guidelines from the government. As those of us who have taken the jabs celebrate our freedom from the limitations imposed by the response to the virus, we must be aware that there is no visible sign to mark the vaccinated from those who are not. Since the vaccine was supposed to be the mark of the beast, I figured there would be some visible means to distinguish those who are protected from those who are not. Alas, that is not the case.

We must all be aware that even though we in the US are fortunate enough to see falling case rates, our health system will continue to see a large number of virus patients filling our hospitals. The stressed health professionals will not be able to totally abandon pandemic status, but the reduced levels we will see will likely mean our health care system won’t be overwhelmed.

That is obviously not the case across the globe. One needs only to look at the severe effects of the virus surge in India in order to understand this is a global fight, and no one is really safe until all people have the chance for immunization. Eventually the uncontrolled spread in many countries will result in a viral mutation that will evade the existing immune response from vaccination. So we have a selfish interest in preventing the scenes of suffering we see as images from India are seen on our media.

But I fear it will be nigh unto impossible to disabuse those who insist that this vaccine is evil, and a part of the New World Order mission to depopulate the earth, and we are only waiting until the 5G signal comes that activates the self-destruct mechanism we’ve had injected into ourselves. As has been said, you can’t fix stupid. And what’s worse is that so many folks are willingly adopting these ludicrous beliefs because they’ve been persuaded by the constant drumbeat of the media of the right.

Look, the right loves to bewail the perceived intolerance of the left. Well, this partisan of the left is open, and has gone so far as to read an extensive link about gain of function research conducted at the Wuhan virology lab and sponsored by that paragon of evil, Anthony Fauci. This was a link provided by my younger son, who has been vaccinated but is also deeply suspicious of China.

I will say we do need to find the animal reservoir for this virus, else the description in the link will be more likely to describe the actual origin of the virus. Regardless of the actual source of the virus, it is apparent that the initial tendency of the Chinese government was to minimize the severity of the initial outbreak. That does not justify the ethnic sniggering conducted by US government officials who were only too willing to blame an entire ethnic group for this viral dissemination. It is the words of these government officials which emboldened so many US citizens to attack their brethren for appearing Asian. What those on the right do not want to admit is that their followers take their words literally and view actions they take in support of ill-advised words as justified both legally and morally. Cancel culture from the left can result in the loss of a job, and that loss is sometimes not justified. Cancel culture from the right can result in the loss of a limb, or a life. After all, extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And when one side defines what liberty is, extremism is often the result.

So we will emerge from the pandemic haphazardly. Some countries will see greatly decreased frequency and severity of infections. Others who may have escaped the ravages of the disease to date will find themselves overrun by later surges induced by more infectious variants. Meanwhile, the host country for the Olympics is questioning the worth of holding this event in the midst of an ongoing surge in cases. Given the expenses involved in hosting an Olympic game, it seems that there will be great reluctance for future cities to vie for the right to spend themselves into oblivion. Especially if this year’s games are canceled. Maybe that’s symbolic of how the world, which once was unified by athletic competition, is now unraveling due to the overwhelming trend towards provincialism sweeping over the nations of the earth. Much like the virus has swept over the earth, totally ignorant of the imaginary lines dividing the countries on the ground. Some realities just cannot be ignored.

Vaccine, Vaccine, Vaccine, Vaccine!

So we now in the US have more doses of vaccines available than we have people wanting to take said vaccines. In some states, available vaccination appointment times are being wasted as we run up against the recalcitrants who believe one or all of the following:

  • The virus is not a real threat, and is nothing to be concerned about
  • The vaccine was developed too quickly and horrible side effects will emerge over time
  • The vaccine contains tracking devices from Bill Gates equivalent to the Mark of the Beast
  • The Chinese are just waiting for enough vaccinations to occur before they unleash part 2 of this pandemic, resulting in depopulation. Only vaccine virgins will remain.
  • Doctors and hospitals are overstating the coronavirus toll since they have a financial incentive to call as many deaths as Covid-related as possible.

I have seen these mentioned on the internet as reasons for not taking the vaccine. It is amazing this degree of stupidity is prevalent but given the electoral history in the US in 2016, stupidity is capable of leading this nation.

Many of the issues I have seen involve the rapidity of vaccine development. Those who refuse inoculation do not understand that we have built the scientific understanding of mRNA, and we can now control its construction so it can be used instead of a killed virus particle aimed at generating immune system response. Instead of having to rely upon a vaccine that can sometimes actually cause the disease, they are scared of the latest advances in science where only the target system on the virus is attacked. People have expressed concerns about use of fetal derived cells in the culturing of the vaccine. Well, the mRNA vaccines do not use any living material at all so this cultural concern is now moot. But if folks really want a more conventional vaccine, the Johnson and Johnson version, and the Astra-Zeneca versions have a killed virus at their core. Just not the COVID virus. I’m not as familiar with the Russian and Chinese vaccines, so I cannot speak about them.

It is incredible how fast our knowledge has grown about genetics and manipulation of genetic components. Just 20 years ago I hung a poster up in my office showing the human genome. It’s only been 20 years ago since the human genome was sequenced, and that effort took over a year to complete. Now, the sequence for this virus was done and sent out to the world in a few days. This enabled scientists to design the genetic response attacking the virus, which resulted in an effective vaccine being developed in record time. The rest of the time was taken up with the clinical trials, which are a necessary step in the release of a vaccine. And indeed, the trials were held, although we do not know essential things like how long does the immune system stay protected. That’s because this virus only came about in the last year, and we’ve not had time to get long-term data on immunity.

There are those who proclaim their belief in God is all they need to protect themselves from germs. These folks would have fared well back in the middle ages with the bubonic plagues. I’d wager most of the folks who succumbed to the plague in bygone days were religious, and that did not save them at all. I just wish these folks would understand that we as humans were given the ability to understand nature, and it is a gift from God to have the knowledge to design new treatments for disease. It is not a refutation of your religious beliefs to accept this wondrous new gift enabled by our abilities provided by God. But then, I cannot comprehend how many believers in this nation were taken in by a charlatan who laughed at their religious devotion.

As I’ve said before, we have an opportunity to see evolution in action. Especially now, since it is the younger people who still can spread their genes to the world who are preferentially refusing to take the vaccines. If those who refuse to take the vaccine end up dying in larger numbers, then fewer of the next generation will have science denial as part of their genetic and cultural inheritance. It is a shame that we must take part in this experiment, because the fewer people who get immunity through vaccines, the more likely it is new variants will develop requiring a tweak to the vaccine, and subsequent booster shots. If we cannot convince folks to get a basic inoculation, then I expect much poorer compliance with subsequent boosters. But maybe it is part of the evolution of the human species causing preferential survival by those who believe in science, and those who are willing to accept the gifts coming from scientific progress.

The End Of The World, As We Know It

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To many, these times we live in are reminiscent of Götterdämmerung, the twilight of the Gods. Certainly that is the image presented at the abomination called the Republican National Convention. They see the changes our society has undergone as being so threatening to their way of life that they cling to a would-be autocrat who has leveraged their fear into a term as President. He now himself clings desperately to the power he has enjoyed, and is pushing all of the levers of that power in order to gum up the normal electoral process. To the group that believes their way of life and unchallenged superiority is indeed challenged, all tactics seem fair to ensure their continued grasp on power.

The 2016 election proved this. While the Democratic candidate won by 2% of the popular vote, due to the small state bias built into the electoral college, the Republicans won the office. They proceeded to rule based as if they had received a massive vote in favor of their policies, though vote really did go against them. Therefore, they knew it was imperative to provide the tools to ensure the changing demographics of this nation did not prevent their takeover of all of the reins of power. In a way, we were fortunate. This President was so ignorant of how government worked, that his first year’s efforts at neutering government were mainly failures. Think of how many different iterations of the Muslim ban came down the pike, only to be swatted away by the judicial branch. But unfortunately, those within the government were able to learn how the levers of power worked. And by the third year, they were capable of implementing the family separation policy. Oh, they didn’t have a way of reuniting families, but who cared?

In a way, it is remarkable that this nation has succeeded in using a single set of founding documents to navigate through the ensuing 2+ centuries. The Constitution has stretched enough to deal with the intervening crises that swirled through this country. But the events of this year have shown that continuing to rely solely upon the document that preceded the technological age, does not always work in the current era of globalized material and people flow, and instantaneous flow of both real and misinformation. When so many people simply refuse to accept what appears to be unambiguous scientific facts, it becomes impossible to conduct a purposeful discussion. This shows itself in so many folks refusing to believe that we are in a pandemic, denying that the outbreak of disease is anything more significant that a variant of the normal flu virus.

Though the current administration insists that the country of origin for the virus was fundamentally negligent in allowing the genii to escape, what happened early this year was what epidemiologists have known and feared would happen in a world interconnected by human and material flow. Before this year, very few people in the US could have identified Wuhan on the map, and even fewer knew that the city and its environs had 11 million residents. But the outbreak of a virus that exhibits high infectivity showed that it could not be contained within a single country. Soon outposts of the virus were set up in Italy, and thence migrated into the US. But of all of the nations hit by the first wave of the virus, it has only been the US that has not brought infections down below a simmering boil. The virus has shown that it is still present, and shows up in all locations where the guard is let down even for a moment.

But in the US, a confluence of events and trends have prevented us from ever bringing the virus under control. The US has never viewed it as necessary to have the Federal government serve as a backstop to private enterprise. So when it was necessary to shut down commercial life in order to reduce the spread of the virus, the mechanisms to provide financial support were creaky at best, balky and unworkable at worst. And now, those mechanisms have been exhausted, and this nation still is operating under the assumption that it is a moral failing that so many people cannot find work, rather than accepting that we are in a fundamentally different era. Then the strain of individual liberty fanatics insisted that any mandated protective acts were an infringement on constitutional rights. Even the simple, though uncomfortable practice, of wearing a face mask has become weaponized, and blood has been spilled in defense of the right to infect others.

Those who were convinced that the blood of Jesus would protect them against any infection were also convinced that the government was infringing against their first amendment rights by preventing them from worshiping in person. You can see time after time where ministers were insistent on holding services in person, even though those services spread disease and death. Indeed, the American desire for a divine miracle to protect the faithful is fully in evidence as a response to this pandemic. The viral particle doesn’t recognize religious denomination, or even if someone is or is not a religious adherent. It recognizes only the opportunity to colonize a new host and spread itself. It is a mindless automaton with only the genetic information inside of it to allow it to propagate.

If there is to be divine intervention, it is because the knowledge of humanity has allowed it to understand the genetic code of the enemy, and to effectively devise biological weaponry to defeat it. That can be manifested through effective treatments for the symptoms of the virus, but all hope is on one or more of the vaccines in clinical trial will be found to be:  1) Effective at preventing infection through activation of the immune system, and 2) Able to provide this immunity without adverse side effects. Indeed, the rapidity at which vaccines have been shepherded into phase 3 trials has been amazing. But due to the same tendency within this nation to reject science and any uncomfortable challenges to beliefs, even when a vaccine is released to the population, a sizable fraction will refuse to take it. Whether it is due to fears unleashed by the anti-vaxxers, or whether it is the belief that the entire virus episode has been a New World Order conspiracy, there will be enough who refuse to take the vaccine that it will still circulate within the population, causing infection, and illness, and preventable death.

The upcoming election does offer the opportunity to return to a semblance of normality. Whether enough of the electorate will recognize that the Federal response to this virus represents a natural outgrowth of the belief system of this administration remains to be seen. The ignorance of the American public can never be overestimated. Let us hope that incompetence can be seen for what it is – a natural consequence of selecting a con man four long years ago.

Off We Go, Into the Wild Blue Yonder

rocket launch space discovery
Photo by SpaceX on Pexels.com

We are living in a golden age of exploration. Part of the human nature has always been to push the boundaries, whenever and wherever there was incentive. The spices of the Orient, along with unknown riches, tempted the explorers of Europe. Now, we are in a race for space. With the recent launch of the Perseverance mission to Mars, that planet is now infested with both unmanned rovers, and orbiting observers. Participants in this infestation include India, China, the joint venture between the Russians and Europeans, multiple missions from the US, and the mission from the United Arab Emirates that recently launched. For millennia humanity watched the planets, convinced that they held great influence over our existence on Earth. Though we may laugh at astrology today, it is undoubtedly responsible for the growth of knowledge about patterns in the cosmos, due to the need to know what the positions of the planets were at the time of the birth of individuals.

Indeed, astrology still has millions of adherents, convinced that the orientation of the planets hold the means to provide order to a seemingly chaotic life. But once our understanding of the cosmos went beyond mere observation, to a systemic search for knowledge, we have been merciless at trying to uncover the mysteries of our solar system neighbors. We have seen evidence of great floods on Mars, and the search continues to see if we can find direct evidence of life elsewhere, either from the past, or tantalizingly, still alive somewhere under the Martian surface.

Now there are private businesses aimed at the conquest of space. These are not just the vanity projects of the new tech aristocracy, but serious attempts at commercializing both near Earth exploration, and eventually solar system exploration. It will be difficult to provide a positive cash flow from these activities, but what we’ve seen is that companies are willing to fund the immense investment in space vehicles. We’ve weathered the gap between NASA’s shuttle (2 catastrophic failures out of 135 missions), to launches to the space station from US vehicles. What is different now is that it is a private corporation, SpaceX, that has contracted with NASA for a series of launches. The first of these launches just splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico, completing a seemingly flawless flight. SpaceX is in competition with Boeing, Boeing concentrating mainly on heavier launch capabilities. Since private enterprise is funding the research, they will be looking for payoff well beyond what government contracts provide. And that is why there truly is a new age of exploration, one that will result in humans setting foot on Mars sooner rather than later. The moon will also be revisited, and with the current missions aiming at prospecting for ice on the surface of the moon, it may actually be possible to build a base on the moon itself.

Why do this? Well, I for one think it much better to use humanity’s creativity in exploration, rather than in building munitions and munition delivery systems. Although there has been significant advances in our understanding of physics, metallurgy, and chemistry through the development of better means of destruction, the use of these tools comes with immense human suffering. And as we’ve seen in the recent explosion involving ammonium nitrate in Lebanon, it does not take a lot of technology to spread a lot of death and destruction.  Spending the money on science to increase our range and knowledge instead of on destruction seems a much more humane way to proceed.

Besides, there is much to learn. Even beyond the possibility of life on Mars, there is the tantalizing thought that life may exist underneath the ice caps covering the oceans of the satellites of the larger planets. The question we have is whether life is ubiquitous in the universe, spreading wherever the chemical conditions couple with the source of energy to power life. If we do find life outside of our planet, it will have immense repercussions among the world’s religions. They must see if their theology can adapt to life existing in multiple locations, and allow for a creator that likes to experiment, rather than one totally vested on earth. I have always thought that limiting a creator to a single site in this immense universe did a disservice to the creator, since it imposed such tight restraints on its capabilities.

The age of exploration we live in goes well beyond the physical limitations of earth. We have been exploring the intricacies of the genome, learning the secrets to manipulate the formulas of life for our own benefit. Tools such as CRISPR, and DNA sequencing improvements, are leading to the possibilities for us to deal with the microscopic universe. Those abilities are coming into play now with the unprecedented speed in which vaccines against COVID-19 are being developed. Back a generation ago, we would not have to knowledge to sequence the genome, learn its tricks for attaching to cells, and develop multiple ways to fight against this novel virus. It would have taken years of painful trial and error work to possibly come up with a vaccine. Today? We may have 3 modes of action incorporated into vaccines, and testing could be complete within a year from the initial confirmation of the virus’s structure.

Many ask why do we spend money on exploration, when we cannot meet our needs on earth. My answer is that it is through exploration and research that we discover the ways to increase the economic pie, thus allowing for a greater share for each individual. It is only through the growth of economic activity engendered by the discoveries from research and exploration that we can avoid the Malthusian fate that would otherwise engulf us.

Existential Threats Revisited

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Back in 2018, I wrote about existential threats to humanity, or at least to the way of life we have enjoyed. In that post Where the Wild Threats Are , I highlighted seven threats that face humanity. Two of those threats are very germane to the current situation in which we find ourselves. I expanded them into separate posts that I wish to revisit now. They are The Bugs We Fear and the Rise of Willful Ignorance .

In The Bugs We Fear, it covered the overuse of antibiotics leading to reduced effectiveness of those critical medicines, and the increase in viral diseases that we may be prone to. Additionally, the post talked about the increased resistance to vaccinations from those who fear the vaccine more than they fear the disease. Even now, when the entire world is straining to develop an effective vaccine against COVID-19, you see more and more people suggesting that the whole purpose of this virus was to enable the evil globalists to activate their diabolical plots to depopulate the world, and enable a need for a new vaccine that would incorporate the “Mark of the Beast” via nanobots, or some other advanced technology. Once the vaccine is in place, all of us will be mandated to show our proof of vaccination or infection, or else we will not be allowed to participate in society. It is disgusting to see this entire episode of a global pandemic decried as a deliberate attempt to subjugate the world’s population and institute a one-world government, but that is exactly what many people are claiming at this time.

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Which brings me to the second post that is appropriate to revisit. The Rise of Willful Ignorance discusses the attitude of dismissal towards experts and anyone who dares to show expertise. Unfortunately, the actions of the US administration towards the oncoming pandemic showed how this attitude can result in orders of magnitude more collateral damage than if we had heeded the warnings of experts and actually taken effective action before it was too late. Since science presents a reality that cannot be bullied into submission by a personality cult, it has been the scientists at the Federal agencies who have had to deal with the petulance of the leader of this nation. And then when the leader ponders aloud totally ignorant ideas like using oxidizers or disinfectants internally, prompting spikes in calls to state poison control hotlines, it only shows how deeply the willful ignorance runs in this administration. Because the appearance of a disruptive pandemic would wreak havoc in the crowning glory of this administration (the best economy EVER!), the pandemic had to be hushed up. Until the actual rates of infection grew too large to ignore, that is what our leader tried to do. He tried to willfully ignore the existence of this inconvenient new truth. In a pandemic, days matter. The weeksand months that were lost in denial have borne fruit in the enormous number of infections we’ve suffered.

Existential threats are just that. They provide a threat to our very existence, or to the foundations of our society. When you combine two of them as this crisis has done, it becomes a perfect storm and the strings that have held together our society are becoming unraveled. Now we are conducting a gigantic experiment upon ourselves. Can we end up relaxing our mitigation efforts before we have the tools to quickly determine the infection status of all individuals? If we do, and the virus asserts its preeminence over humanity again by successive tsunamis of infection, then the damage done to our economy will be magnified several fold. And the original tolls of hundreds of thousands dead in this country will come true. It was only through the extreme measures we’ve taken that has caused the predictions of the number of dead to be reduced. I fear the unbridled rush towards reopening the economy will result in secondary outbreaks of the virus, and this time, we will not have the will or means to combat it. We’re already in a weakened state from the first onslaught.

May we hope to gain wisdom from our struggles against this horrible disease. And imagine how we would fare against an even more potent microbial adversary, like the ones that used to sweep over civilizations and reorder human relations and economies for decades. The economy we’ve built is too fragile to sustain many more attacks. We will all learn what is to follow in the viral aftermath.

 

Human Induced Extinctions

dodo

This is the sixth in a series of seven posts regarding the threats I see facing humanity. This threat is human-induced extinctions. Scientists have determined that we live in a new geologic era, described as the Anthropocene, where human activity is the predominant factor in describing how the Earth is behaving. It is reflected in the erosion that comes from agricultural practices, creating new river deltas much faster than in previous times. It is reflected in the effect of industrial and civilian gas emissions, which affect the composition of the atmosphere. It is reflected in the crowding out of wildlife due to the incursion of human activities into locations where wildlife has existed for millions of years.

Perhaps there is no place where the effects of humanity has been so pronounced as in the ocean depths. There we have found the ultimate repository of the plastic we use so gratuitously, single use plastic that finds its way into the ocean waters. Stories abound about the wildlife found to be starving to death, because inert plastic has filled the stomach and gut of an animal. It literally feels full, since the stomach is full, but will not take in new nutrients since there is no urge to fill the stomach. That is one form of human incursion into the oceans. Another is the cruel and indiscriminate fishing practices that go on throughout the oceans. Huge dragnets haul all creatures up and then the catch is sorted once it reaches the surface and is dying. Much is either discarded or kept as junk fish, good only to be ground up as food for other fishes, or for pet food. Some is from species we identify with as being intelligent, like dolphins. I remember the TV show Flipper, which anthropomorphized a dolphin beyond recognition. But it is undoubtedly true that dolphins are intelligent, and capable of compassion, since the stories of dolphins assisting humans to survive are common.

The worst fishing practices are those that drag the bottom of the ocean. Those vessels disturb all of the creatures colonizing the ocean floor. Very few of these species are considered as human food, yet those that are (like flounder) are highly prized. The ocean floor will not recover for hundreds of years, yet the fleets of fishing ships keep trawling continually.

Oceans are one thing, but no human has their natural habitat under the sea. The problems of species extinction exist for each class of plant and animal. Though it is extremely difficult to quantify (how do you prove a negative?), the rate of species extinction is estimated at between 10 to 100 times greater than the rate of extinction normally present on Earth without an external cause. And anecdotal evidence is that insect populations are being affected extensively. Journals such as Science in 2017 published a story titled Where Have All The Insects Gone? The article noted that scholarly research on insect populations is scarce, but that in certain long-term studies of populations, the number of insects found in fields has been reduced by over 80%. The study referred to the “windshield effect,” noting that many people have seen fewer insect / windshield collisions over the years. The damage to bee populations has been severe, with the colony collapse disorder causing massive losses to bee populations. A cause for the reduction has not been definitively named, but the class of insecticides known as Neonicotinoids is, as the police would say, “a chemical of interest”. These chemicals were originally marketed as reducing the need to spray more toxic organophosphates and organochlorine insecticides. They often are used to coat the seeds, and when the plant sprouts, the insecticide is absorbed into the plant where it provides defense. But since it permeates the entire plant, it is expressed in the pollen as well. That is how it appears to affect pollinator populations. Since honeybees are used in commerce, the losses in honeybees was noted first. But concern exists for all other pollinator species.

Much has been written about the intrusion of humanity’s effects on tropical forests. Nowhere is that seen more clearly than when a road is cut through virgin forests. Once a road is available, it is soon followed by those who exploit the opening. Forestry now tackles the old-growth trees, reducing stable ecosystems into a maze of forest edges. Species that once had free range across a canopy now find themselves having to traverse new agricultural lands to get to the next patch of undisturbed forest. And when populations of people begin to live in these newly opened lands, a market in bush meat is created. The Amazon is ground zero to display the effects of roads and subsequent land disturbance. Take a quick trip on Google Earth to the Amazon, and note that wherever you see a road, you will also see the encroachment of cleared land and settlements.

We as humans do not always understand the impact of our actions. We do not know what will happen when insect A is eliminated from a portion of its normal range. What other species used insect A as a food source? What insects or plants did insect A help keep in control? Will we see a reduction in birds due to the lack of insect A? Humans, being emotional animals, are much more capable of generating sympathy for the large, photogenic animals that are endangered. But the smallest insect may have as much impact or more on the ecosystem as a large furry mammal.

We as a civilization do not yet seem concerned by the loss of species we are seeing. Even in countries where an effort has been made to reduce the loss of species, a change in the government can reverse decades of efforts almost overnight. In the US, there is no mistaking the intent of the Trump administration to roll back the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. There is a strong belief that laws and regulations limiting the ability of a property owner to develop property as they see fit, represent an unconstitutional taking of the owner’s property right. Since insects or birds or other animals cannot hire a lawyer to defend their right to life, it falls to environmental groups to challenge regulatory repeal. Still, the attitude of the administration towards science-based evidence remains clear. Science and scientists are viewed with disdain, and they are clearly leftist in their politics since they so often stand against the rights of those with property.

What can science do to deal with these problems? It would seem that an effort to develop new pesticides that do not have such systemic effects is required. These efforts are proceeding within the large agrichemical companies, but it takes years and sometimes decades before a novel chemical class is commercialized and finds its place in the marketplace. It appears that legislative action across the world may be needed to ban certain classes of chemicals shown to cause excessive harm. The role of scientists would seem to also include quantifying the loss of species, and doing research to show what happens when one thread of the web of life is pulled out.

Maybe the best use of scientists would be to increase their role in educating the public as to the risks we are running by conducting our current experiment of causing the extinction of so many species. In the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, humanity was given stewardship over the creatures of the Earth. If nothing else, we have been proven to be bad stewards.

 

 

Chemicals I Have Known (and Made) – Methyl Methacrylate

methyl methacrylate

This post describes the last of the large volume chemicals I made when I worked at the Memphis plant in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. It is methyl methacrylate, which is used in many of the plastics that are known as acrylics. You may know them through their trade names like Plexiglas®, or Lucite®. You encounter them on every airplane flight you take, since they are used in the windows that let you see the clouds and the ground.

The process to make methyl methacrylate is complex, and large in scale. Our plant made several hundred million pounds per year. Some of the product was used on the plant in an acrylic sheet plant, that made both clear and colored, often marbled colored sheet. There are five steps to make methyl methacrylate. First, acetone (good old nail polish remover) is reacted with hydrogen cyanide (discussed in my first post on chemicals) to make something called acetone cyanohydrin, or ACN. As with anything involving cyanide, the material is toxic and great care was taken to prevent release of the chemical. The next step takes the ACN and mixes it with extra-strong sulfuric acid called oleum. Oleum is basically 100% sulfuric acid (one of the strongest and worst acids to deal with), with extra sulfur trioxide gas dissolved in the acid. When it hits anything containing water, it instantly reacts with it and sucks the water out of what it hits. This oleum is tweaked by adding tiny amounts of water to make the mix right at 100% acid when it hits the ACN.

The reaction process is very energetic, and produces an intermediate chemical called methacrylamide (I know, too many unpronounceable names). This intermediate chemical in a sulfuric acid solution was then reacted with methanol, and the resulting chemical was separated out and purified. The sulfuric acid solution contained a bit of organics, including some polymer. It was allowed to settle in a large tank so that the polymer could float up to the top and be removed in what we called skim tubs. The sulfuric acid tails were then fed into a sulfuric acid manufacturing process, where extra sulfur was added to make up for process losses, and new extra-strong sulfuric acid was stored and fed back into the reactors.

As you may have realized, these chemicals were all very nasty, and either toxic or corrosive or very hot, and I used to walk around miles of piping and vessels carrying these fluids under pressure. Only the product methyl methacrylate, was relatively non-toxic and non-corrosive, but it was at the end of a long process to make it.

In the few years I worked on this process, there were two main tasks I had. First, I was working with our staff of PhD chemists to improve the yield of the process. One very intriguing possibility was replacing the water that we used to mix with the sulfuric acid with methanol. Lab data showed a significant yield increase by introducing methanol in the first step. Since the reaction of sulfuric acid with methanol releases water, it solves the problem of controlling the acid strength when it is mixed with the ACN. The main difference between methanol and water was that it took a lot more methanol than water to provide an equivalent amount of water content. For every gallon of water, it took almost 1.9 gallons of methanol to substitute. But everything looked good in the lab, so we began work on a full-scale plant test. We went through an extensive process hazards review process to try to see if there were new hazards introduced, but could not come up with a reason to halt the test.

So I was the engineer in charge for the plant test when we got ready to swap out our water feed with a new methanol feed. The way we injected water into the sulfuric acid was through a mixer, where the acid was twisted through fixed barriers in the pipe to ensure complete mixing. We closed the valve for the water, opened it for the methanol, and watched to see what would happen. Almost instantly we became aware that despite all of our planning, something was going very, very wrong. The water injection line now holding methanol started to jerk around severely, and one thing you never want in a chemical plant is to have piping moving back and forth. I gave the order to turn the methanol off, and turn the water back on, and the piping stopped shaking. We probably were on methanol for no longer than 10 minutes before I halted the test.

What we had overlooked was that when we substituted water for methanol, we were adding a larger volume of a liquid that boiled at a much lower temperature. Methanol boils at about 149ºF vs. 212°F for water. It also takes a lot less energy to boil methanol. And when we started swapping out the water for methanol, some of the sulfuric acid would go partway up into the methanol pipe and induce boiling where we had never had boiling before. That was what caused the piping to jerk about. Fortunately I stopped the test before anything broke, but that was one of the scariest experiences I ever had in that plant. We never did go back to that test, since it would have taken a significant redesign to come up with a mixing system that could handle the differences between the two fluids.

The second project I had during this time was one I had inherited. I mentioned the skim tubs where polymer floated above the spent sulfuric acid as it cooled. That polymer had been skimmed off, packaged into metal drums and sent out as hazardous waste. Now there was an old incinerator down at the bottom of the plant, that someone had the bright idea to re-commission as a hazardous waste incinerator, depending upon its ability to meet hazardous waste disposal regulations.

One of the advantages of working for a world-wide company was that we had a wealth of technical expertise. There was a whole cadre of folks at the Engineering Services Division, or ESD, who had PhD credentials. They concocted the idea of putting the polymer into 30 gallon cardboard drums with plastic liners, and then burning them in the incinerator. But since this was an operation that needed to operate automatically without human intervention, they had created a Rube Goldberg contraption to make it work. They designed a conveyor system where drums would be placed on rollers. When the time came for a new drum to be inserted into the incinerator, alarm bells would go off, warning lights would flash, the knife valve they had installed on the top of the incinerator would open up, and the next drum in line would advance up the conveyor’s slope till it teetered at the end, and then would plummet headfirst through the top of the incinerator. Imagine an automated system to throw virgins into the maw of a volcano, and that’s what this thing looked like.

Well, I oversaw the construction work to install the conveyor and all of the equipment. We got ready to test the system, but there was one really little itsy-bitsy problem we encountered. See, during the time between when the scope was prepared for this incineration process and the design was installed, there had been another change made to the chemistry of the process, in order to improve yield. This chemistry change converted the polymer from being hard chunks that didn’t hold much acid, into a soupy mix that held a lot of the spent sulfuric acid. We had problems with drums leaking since the plastic liner was not intended to hold hot sulfuric acid, but worse than that, when the drums were consumed in the incinerator, a plume of sulfur dioxide came out of the stack and came down all over the place on the plant.

During the process of trying to get this incinerator to work, I had been transferred from Memphis to our Belle plant in West Virginia. The last thing I did at Memphis was to try to conduct a trial to see if this setup would meet the environmental requirements. We were successful in incinerating a liquid stream from our Lucite® sheet plant, but the attempts to incinerate the polymer drums was an abject failure.

Both of these efforts showed me how small and subtle things could cause a huge unforeseen problem. It was the effect of unintended consequences that got us in both cases. Once I went to Belle, I was working in a sister plant of the Memphis methyl methacrylate plant, only it was a plant that used water instead of methanol in order to create an organic acid. But the statistics I was exposed to in Memphis, proved crucial to me in the next phase of my career where I used statistical techniques to extend my working career well beyond many of my peers who weren’t as adept at math as I was.

 

 

 

 

 

A Day At The Beach

ocean flood

This is the fourth in a series of seven articles aimed at describing some of the threats that humanity faces in the coming years. It is the issue of global sea rise. There are many who dispute whether carbon dioxide and methane emissions from human civilization are the primary cause of global warming. But regardless of the source of the warming climate, it is becoming more and more clear that sea level is rising in response. That will have an incredible impact upon the population of the world, since there has always been a great desire to live at or very near to the sea shore. And the level of the sea has seldom been constant over geological time, since glaciers have expanded and contracted many times over the past million years, causing the sea level to vary hundreds of feet during these oscillations.

What is different this time, is that our current civilization was developed with the current sea levels. So all of the infrastructure associated with the great cities of the world, it is mainly at sea level. And for many of the people who live in poor countries, like Bangladesh, they exist on river estuaries which are extremely susceptible to sea level rise. So whether the current rise in sea levels is due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, or whether it is merely a continuation of the cycle of ice sheet expansions and contractions that preceded our species, it becomes necessary to develop a plan for dealing with ongoing sea level rise.

The best option would be to have a controlling thermostat knob on our climate that we could use to compensate for either natural effects on the climate, or for those that humanity has caused. At present, we do not have that. If the scientists who are convinced that human emissions of greenhouse gases are responsible for increasing the temperature, then one knob would be raising and lowering the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere. As seen by the political response to this in the US, there is extremely heavy opposition to this technique from those who are invested in the status quo of the energy industries. It also will require huge investment in both research and in physical facilities to enable renewable energy resources to supplant fossil fuel sources. There is no doubt that we do need to invest in both the research and the facilities, along with redesigning of the electrical grid to be more resilient and to accept the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources.

One option for a zero carbon energy source that is not being discussed is nuclear energy. No, not the energy created from the fission of U235 atoms used in every nuclear power plant in the world at present. Instead, what is needed is to develop reactors that use the thorium power cycle. At one time, nuclear energy research considered thorium as a viable source of electric power. There is one small problem with the thorium cycle, though. It is not capable of generating plutonium as a byproduct. Back when the nuclear power industry was being developed, there was a desire to have plutonium production so that spent uranium fuel rods could be processed to remove the plutonium for weapons production. The vast majority of the research for nuclear energy used enriched uranium U235 as the source for power generation, and thus research for thorium went by the wayside.

But the U235 power cycle also produces other long-lived radioactive isotopes that keep reactor rods fatally radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Thus humanity is tasked with trying to isolate wastes from power generation inside of geologically stable environments for many millennia longer than humanity has had a civilization. This is scarcely a realistic model to build a sustainable civilization upon. And U235 reactors are inherently unstable. Complex neutron absorption systems have to be maintained in order to keep the reaction at the sweet spot. Too much absorption, and the nuclear fire goes out and no electricity is generated. Just right, and you can remove the excess heat with water that flashes to steam and eventually turns electric generators. Too little neutron absorption, and the system is capable of melting down into a puddle of zirconium and uranium, that will eventually break through all known containment systems. At the same time, gases generated from the reaction will likely ignite, releasing a cloud of radioactive elements out of the containment system.

Thorium, on the other hand, is an inherently stable reaction system. The active isotope of thorium (Th232) is 99.98% of all thorium in nature. When it absorbs a neutron, it eventually reacts through subsequent beta particle decay into U233. This isotope of uranium is capable of sustaining nuclear fission, but unlike its cousin U235, it does not create longer-lived radioactive isotopes as byproducts. Instead, the fission products it produces are all lighter than the starting materials, and their radioactive half lives are mainly less than a hundred years. Thus it is conceivable that waste products could be maintained in an isolation facility for a reasonable period of time and then would not be a hazard to future generations in future millenia.

The thorium cycle has another advantage. It is impossible to get a runaway reaction using thorium. Since the proposed design for a thorium reactor involves a molten salt reactor, any loss of containment would result in a salt-thorium mixture solidifying on the ground, incapable of performing further fission. All of these advantages over the existing U235 nuclear cycle says that thorium fission should be investigated thoroughly and promptly brought to commercialization. Again, another problem (reducing CO2 generation while providing stable electrical power generation) that could be solved by the investment of the government into scientific research, and opportunities for employment of nuclear engineers and metallurgical engineers and mechanical engineers. Oh, and by the way, the main ores of thorium also contain rare earth metals and phosphates. Both of these are highly desirable materials. Also, thorium is four times more abundant in Earth’s crust as is uranium.

This was a detour from the immediate problem we are intending to address, which is sea level rise. What is needed is a way to do triage for the developed world in trying to determine what infrastructure is indefensible given a certain amount of sea rise, and what infrastructure can be salvaged if we begin to take action now. For example, London installed a barrier on the Thames back in the 1980’s that serves to protect London from abnormally high tides. Would such a barrier be feasible for the Hudson to protect the NY – NJ region from ongoing sea rise? What will the implications of ongoing sea rise be for cities such as Miami, where the tourist infrastructure is at risk. As much as those who believe in karma wish for Mar-A-Lago to suffer inundation, the entire southeastern coast of Florida is at risk. And areas like Newport News and Charleston South Carolina are already going through periods of rainless flooding caused by peak tides. This will only get worse over the next few decades. What is needed to enable these highly-populated metropolitan areas to still be functional? What if it is determined that it is not feasible? How do we deal with the displaced populations?

The issues of displaced populations becomes even more dire when you consider the underdeveloped nations most at risk from rising seas. In these areas, it would be necessary to develop lower-tech means to mitigate the risk. One partial solution is to reestablish mangrove barriers as initial surge suppressors. Mangroves have the ability to capture soil in the roots, thus allowing the ground level to rise as the water level rises. But it will be necessary to develop ways to prevent salt water intrusion, and it will be extremely beneficial if the techniques used to counteract sea level rise use the local farmers and laborers as the contractors to do the work to save their own land. That way, they receive a benefit in building and maintaining these facilities, presumably receiving an income, and they then have an incentive to make sure they work, since their farming livelihood depends upon the new systems functioning properly.

The issues concerning sea level rise are longer-term in their impact and solutions. But in order to effectively deal with them, we must plan now based on what we know will happen. Otherwise we will be caught off guard, like in 2018 when the warmer and less dense waters of the Gulf of Mexico caused the extremely rapid intensification of Hurricane Michael. For one of the consequences of global sea level rise is due to the decrease of density at higher temperatures. Seawater takes up about 1% more volume at 30ºC than it does at 20°C. And the higher water temperatures from a warming climate not only act directly on the water level, they also provide more fuel for the storms that feed upon their heat. We may have been caught off-guard by a hurricane much stronger than expected, but we should not be caught off-guard by physical effects we can predict decades in advance.