You Can’t Fool Mother Nature

When I entered this world, in the mid-1950’s, the earth held about 2.7 billion people. This is the wondrous time people are calling for the US to return to, since we were “great” then. As of today, we are nearing and may have gone over 8 billion people on this planet. Unfortunately, the rules that were possible with a population of 2.7 billion, become unmanageable when there are 8 billion people on the planet.

Just think of the issues we face now which were not problems in the mid-1950’s. We now face many existential crises, and even still face the one we thought we had put behind us, that of nuclear conflict. The seas are becoming deserts as huge trawlers scrape all living creatures into their maws. The lungs of the planet are now succumbing to clear-cutting and soybean cultivation in Brasil, led by a mad-man who refuses to acknowledge the limits of our planet. In the US, population pressures in distant lands have led to an unstoppable tide of those wishing to claim refugee status within our borders. And everywhere we suffer from the natural byproduct of civilization, that is carbon dioxide, along with a refusal by many to believe in the laws of thermodynamics. So be it. Those who claim college educations are worthless deserve to come up against the inexorable power of nature, and suffer the inevitable horrible consequences. All that is left is for those of us who are educated to say “I told you so”. A poor response to deal with the human carnage set to come when the effects of global warming become more pronounced.

In so many ways, we are dealing with national governments which refuse to take a holistic view of the world situation. So many folks still believe we live in a world with only 2.5 billion people, rather than the real world which holds 8 billion humans. Whether it is the retrograde Republicans in the US, or the near-sighted populists of Brasil, or the newly-minted electoral majority in Italy trying to channel Mussolini, political movements across the globe are imitating flightless birds sticking their heads in the sand. By refusing to admit the world has changed, they are subjecting their followers towards the inevitable crisis as they drive their car off of the mesa and do a swan dive towards the ground below. So where do we find those who are really trying to deal with the problems of the present which will make our future untenable?

First, we must begin to listen to those of us who are screaming about physical limits inherent on the earth. There are certainly folks who recognize limits to systems on the earth, though their voices seem swallowed up by those who preach the gospel of prosperity. Many people renounced the mantra of bigger is better, and have gone towards a more sustainable lifestyle. Back in the 1970’s, those folks were characterized as tree-huggers, since they advocated and lived a simplistic lifestyle off of the grid. Now it is possible to be off-the-grid, yet still be connected to the world through solar cells. Yet we still see those new subdivisions built in places never intended to house large numbers of humans, places where the first unpleasant reality is a lack of water. A small encouraging sign has appeared in states like Arizona and Nevada. There legislation was enacted which removes the abilities of Home Owner Associations to require grass lawns. Note there is nothing that requires a more sensible landscape for desert cities, just that people may not be compelled to use immense quantities of water to maintain grass. I am quite certain that those who opt out of a green lawn still may face peer pressure to keep up their conspicuous consumption of water, and their spigots turned on.

If we are having to fight for common sense through legislative actions even for a resource as limited and as visible as water, what hope do we have in convincing large segments of the population to repudiate ongoing use of fossil fuels? Well, we can try to educate. At least some people may be convincible, especially since the world is changing in more visible ways. People look at fossil fuels as being the only effective sources of energy for humanity. But those who claim that do not have a clue that any combustion process has a thermodynamic limitation of efficiency. No combustion process can have an efficiency much greater than 50% due to the laws of nature. Therefore, in all combustion processes, whether an internal combustion engine used for transportation, or a steam power plant, fully half or more of the energy of combustion gets transformed into waste heat. Maybe you can harness some of that waste heat for other human needs, but that costs additional money, and is seldom used on a year-round basis.

Renewable energy is decried for being unreliable and diffuse, and requiring energy storage devices in order to ensure energy availability when needed. Maybe so, but an electron generated from a solar cell does not have the same thermodynamic limitation as energy from fossil fuels. And when it is produced at the same location as it is consumed, transmission losses become minimal. Only the inverter loss (about 10-20%) represents energy lost from solar cells vs. 50% from combustion. So solar energy has a head start on other energy sources used in mass plants and then distributed.

Wind energy is truly variable, and at the scale it is built at, either large energy storage systems are required, or alternative sources of energy aimed at load leveling are required in order to take advantage of this energy source. Once more though, electrons produced through wind energy are fully available to the electrical grid after going through an inverter.

Yes, but fossil fuels are macho! That seems to be the argument underpinning many of those who champion continued and unlimited use of fossil fuels. I don’t know about you, but climbing up some of those 300’ towers to service a windmill seems macho enough to me. Fossil fuels are somehow viewed as our right to use, regardless of any ill effects. Well, it seems we now know it is not a good thing to rejigger our atmosphere and reintroduce all of the carbon sequestered over the millions of years in a blink of a geological eye. But to those who say, we were given dominion over this planet, I say, I agree. And it is about time we use what we have learned to prevent a giant bollocks while we still have time.

The Webb of Life

Distant galaxy field. Photo by NASA

In this age of humanity seemingly coming apart at the seams, sometimes the accomplishments of humanity break through and brings us back to a state of wonder and amazement. The beginning of the parade of Webb telescope images is one of these accomplishments. I have been waiting for this telescope to go into operation for years, through all of the cost overruns and delays. I was worried that since this camera mainly “sees” in the infrared spectrum, the images it produces would not meet the expectations of the majority of those who look at the pictures. I am very pleased to say I was wrong.

Photo by NASA. Courtesy of CNN

Take these images. They represent the same object in space, as seen by a ground-based telescope, the Hubble telescope, and the Webb telescope. Note how each advance in technology is reflected in a clearer image. I can imagine this scope is going to be capable of detecting atmospheres of planets as they transit their star from our perspective. To me, that is an amazing feat. I can only hope the stories will soon be about atmospheres with water vapor, and the gas representing life – free oxygen. I for one would consider a positive detection of an atmosphere with oxygen as a positive proof of discovery of life elsewhere in the universe. Oxygen is so reactive that its presence in an atmosphere is a signal of life processes continually refreshing the content in the atmosphere. Once its presence is confirmed, then the only question will be how many of these types of planets across the universe exist.

The Webb telescope is an amazing accomplishment. I read that 344 separate steps had to be done perfectly in order for the telescope to meet its objectives and be capable of exploration in deep space. The odds of all of those 344 steps being done properly is infinitesimal – yet this did happen. When someone wants to tell you the Federal Government is incapable of doing anything right, point them to the success of the Webb telescope in order to plant a seed of doubt in their mind.

Dansing Galaxies. Photo by NASA and CNN

What will happen from this point forward? A lot of serious science, I am sure. Taking images from the early days of this universe surely will help inform us of our history. Nothing will convince the flat-earthers, or the religious fundamentalists who insist upon a young earth consistent with their literal interpretation of the Bible. But for those of us who have eyes, and a mind that is open, this telescope will provide incredible images. The stories that will be written based upon these observations will allow all of us to marvel at the variety of solar systems in the universe, and just might provide confirmation of the existence of life on other planets. As they say, that may be a game-changer.

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.

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.