Archive for the ‘Earth’ Category

Warning Labels on Everything

April 29, 2018

Last month, Arnold Schwarzenegger revealed his plans to sue the oil companies for first degree murder because of their contributions to and denial of climate change.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s next mission: taking oil companies to court “for knowingly killing people all over the world.”

The former California governor and global environmental activist announced the move Sunday at a live recording of POLITICO’s Off Message podcast here at the SXSW festival, revealing that he’s in talks with several private law firms and preparing a public push around the effort.

“This is no different from the smoking issue. The tobacco industry knew for years and years and years and decades, that smoking would kill people, would harm people and create cancer, and were hiding that fact from the people and denied it. Then eventually they were taken to court and had to pay hundreds of millions of dollars because of that,” Schwarzenegger said. “The oil companies knew from 1959 on, they did their own study that there would be global warming happening because of fossil fuels, and on top of it that it would be risky for people’s lives, that it would kill.”

Schwarzenegger said he’s still working on a timeline for filing, but the news comes as he prepares to help host a major environmental conference in May in Vienna.

“We’re going to go after them, and we’re going to be in there like an Alabama tick. Because to me it’s absolutely irresponsible to know that your product is killing people and not have a warning label on it, like tobacco,” he said. “Every gas station on it, every car should have a warning label on it, every product that has fossil fuels should have a warning label on it.”

He argues that at the very least, this would raise awareness about fossil fuels and encourage people to look to alternative fuels and clean cars.

He added, “I don’t think there’s any difference: If you walk into a room and you know you’re going to kill someone, it’s first degree murder; I think it’s the same thing with the oil companies.”

I think that those steroids that Schwarzenegger used to bulk up have caused his brain to rot. If we were to put warning labels on every single thing that uses fossil fuels in their manufacture, we would have to put a warning label on almost every single thing. Our manufacturers absolutely depend on the electricity provided by fossil fuels. Alternative sources of energy such as wind and solar do not even come close to providing, by orders of magnitude, the energy needed to keep our economy running.

Aside from that, fossil fuels themselves are components in various industrial processes. The gasoline in our cars is not the only petroleum product we use on a daily basis. Plastic is also created from petroleum. In his article at PJMedia , Tyler O’Neil provides a short list of the sort of things that would require a warning label if Arnold had his way.

ink, upholstery, vitamin capsules, dashboards, skis, mops, umbrellas, nylon rope, shampoo, guitar strings, refrigerators, toys (LEGOs, for instance), glue, cameras, pajamas, purses, life jackets, luggage, toothbrushes, toothpaste, crayons, pillows, balloons, football helmets, footballs, roller-skate wheels, nail polish, panty hose, insect repellant, ice cube trays, trash bags, sun glasses, paint brushes, artificial limbs, perfumes, soap, shoes, slacks, DVDs, dice, surf boards, tents, telephones, drinking cups, milk jugs, Aspirin, lipstick, rubbing alcohol, shaving cream, garden hose, heart valves, hearing aids, and toilet seats.

A more complete list can be found here. I suspect that even the warning labels would be made of plastic that comes from petroleum.

This campaign against fossil fuels is, in many ways, a campaign against modernity. Before the introduction of fossil fuels and the Industrial Revolution, humanity used such renewable sources of energy as the sun, wind, and most importantly the muscles of humans and animals. Life was not a utopia in which everyone lived in harmony with the Earth. Life, for most people, was nasty, brutish and short, with only a very small elite (the 1%) living in anything resembling the comfort taken for granted by almost everyone lucky enough to live in the developed world. Fossil fuels helped make our present levels of prosperity and economic development possible. If restrictions or punitive fines and taxation make access to fossil fuels and the power and products they provide more expensive, the cost of nearly everything will increase. For a successful movie star and businessman like Arnold Schwarzenegger, this would no burden, but for those of us who are not wealthy, this campaign against fossil fuels will result in a lower standard of living,and for those still living in poverty in the developing world, increased poverty and the loss of any hope of improving their circumstances. Whatever the intentions of Green crusaders like Schwarzenegger, the policies they advance may create a sort of neo-Medieval world in which a tiny elite live in comfort while the great masses lack the necessities of life.

Of course, they may not see it that way. Implied in this crusade against fossil fuels is the idea that alternative, renewable sources of energy will be able to pick up the slack as fossil fuels are regulated and taxed out of profitability. In the long run, fossil fuels will become obsolete, probably sooner than anyone believes, but I do not think that making us all poorer will speed up the process and I am not sure that these people really want us to have cheap, abundant energy from any source. Nuclear power is the one alternative to fossil fuels that is really viable right now and the same people who want us not to use fossil fuels do not seem to be very excited by the idea of replacing our coal plants with nuclear reactors, even though that would drastically lower our carbon footprint. I sometimes wonder if it is global warming or resource depletion they are worried about, or the idea of the common deplorables having access to cheap, abundant energy.

In any case, let’s hope that Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t get anywhere with his insane lawsuit.

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Have We Found Aliens?

January 25, 2016

It is just barely possible that we have discovered the first evidence for some sort of extraterrestrial intelligence. At any rate, astronomers have discovered a star that is something of an anomaly, according to this article.

Three months ago, news broke that a giant “alien megastructure” could exist around a bizarre-looking star 1,500 light-years away.

While the prospect of aliens was first launched by Penn State astronomer Jason Wright, almost everyone in the astronomy community agreed that the chances that this was the case were “very low.

Now, the latest investigations into this strange star by Louisiana State University astronomerBradley Schaefer have reignited the alien theory, New Scientist reported.

What makes this star, KIC8462852, so bizarre is the drastic changes in light we see from it over time. Many stars experience temporary fluctuations in brightness, increasing and decreasing in luminosity over time, but KIC8462852’s changes are severe by comparison.

Astronomers refer to stars that experience those fluctuations in luminosity as variable stars. A star can change in brightness either because something occasionally blocks the star’s light, usually a companion star or perhaps a planet, or because the internal processes of the star cause variations in luminosity. Probably every star is at least a little variable. The Sun has its eleven year sunspot cycle, for example. Whether the cause of a star’s variability is external or internal, its cycle of variability tends to be regular. That does not seem to be the case with KIC8462852.

Between 2009 and 2013, astronomers using the Kepler space telescope discovered that it would sometimes lose up to 20% of its brightness. What’s more, the changes didn’t follow any obvious pattern.

That would suggest something gigantic must be blocking the light at random times, meaning that it couldn’t be a planet or other regular orbiting object because that would generate a distinct pattern of dimming light. It must be something that changes shape over time, thereby blocking different levels of light at random intervals.

Could the cause be artificial?

An alien megastructure, called a Dyson swarm, was suggested as one explanation for what scientists have observed, but the most likely reason astronomers came up with was comets — a giant family of them.

But Shaefer says not so fast.

“The comet-family idea was reasonably put forth as the best of the proposals, even while acknowledging that they all were a poor lot,” Schaefer told New Scientist. “But now we have a refutation of the idea, and indeed, of all published ideas.”

To make his discovery, Schaefer had to dig deep down into the astronomy archives at Harvard. It turns out, astronomers have data on KIC8462852 dating back as far as 1890.

By analyzing over 1,200 measurements of this star’s brightness taken from 1890 through 1989, Schaefer found that the irregular dimming of KIC8462852 has been going on for over 100 years. Schaefer published his findings in the online preprint server arXiv.org.

What’s more, he explains in his paper that this “century-long dimming trend requires an estimated 648,000 giant comets (each with 200 km diameter) all orchestrated to pass in front of the star within the last century,” which he said is “completely implausible.”

By killing the comet theory, Schaefer has brought us one step closer to finding out what is really happening around KIC8462852.

At the same time, he’s also reignited the possibility that the source could be an alien megastructure that an advanced alien civilization has been slowly building over time. One thing’s certain for Schaefer: The bizarre dimmings are probably caused by a single, physical mechanism that’s undergoing some type of ongoing change.

“The century-long dimming and the day-long dips are both just extreme ends of a spectrum of timescales for unique dimming events, so by Ockham’s Razor, all this is produced by one physical mechanism,” Shaefer said in his paper. “This one mechanism does not appear as any isolated catastrophic event in the last century, but rather must be some ongoing process with continuous effects.”

Schaefer isn’t the only one interested in learning more about KIC8462852. Late last year, astronomer Doug Vakoch and his team at the new organization called SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) International — not to be confused with the SETI Institute — went hunting for aliens around KIC8462852.

They searched for signals that an alien civilization might be beaming toward Earth either in radio or visible wavelengths, but ultimately they came up empty handed. So, if it is aliens, then they’re being awfully quiet.

Is it aliens? If this is some structure created by an extraterrestrial civilization, we shouldn’t expect to be receiving any sort of messages from them. They would have no reason to believe that there is any intelligent life here on Earth since any radio waves we have emitted cannot be farther than about 100 light years away by now. Any message to or from KIC8462582 would take 1500 years to reach its destination. They may have sent a message last year but we won’t get it for a long time.

I tend to think, however, that the explanation for the strange behavior of KIC8462582 will turn out to be due to an entirely natural phenomenon.I think that as we begin to explore the universe we will find that life is fairly common. The elements and compounds that make up the basic components of life are found throughout the universe and if the current understanding of the earliest history of the Earth is accurate, it seems that life arose on this planet as soon as it was physically possible. Scientists do not know precisely how life began on Earth, but I think that they will find that where ever the right conditions are found, there will be life of some sort. I think, though, that most of the life we find in the universe is going to be simple and primitive, some equivalent of terrestrial bacteria. Bacteria were the only form of life found on Earth for most of its history. Intelligent life must be still rarer. Human beings have only been around much less than 1% of the Earth’s history and we have only had to capability to communicate by radio for a little over a century. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to believe that the development of intelligent life or a technological civilization was inevitable and considering the strange twists and turns of the history of life it  may not be very probable. I think then, that we will find some few worlds with alien plants or animals, but that we are probably the only intelligent form of life in our galaxy.

Even if there are extraterrestrial civilizations, our relations with them will not be like Star Wars or Star Trek in which there are a number of different races at about the same level of technology. It is more likely that if two civilizations make contact, one civilization will be millions of years ahead of the other. Any space wars are likely to be short and decisive with the more advanced civilization quickly overcoming the more primitive. With that in mind, maybe we shouldn’t be trying to draw attention to ourselves. I would hate to think that there is a fleet of conquistadors from KIC8462852 heading this way.

God on the Ropes

February 28, 2015

According to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, some brilliant new scientific research has demolished the Christian Right and the Creationists.

The Christian right’s obsessive hatred of Darwin is a wonder to behold, but it could someday be rivaled by the hatred of someone you’ve probably never even heard of. Darwin earned their hatred because he explained the evolution of life in a way that doesn’t require the hand of God. Darwin didn’t exclude God, of course, though many creationists seem incapable of grasping this point. But he didn’t require God, either, and that was enough to drive some people mad.

Hatred is perhaps too strong a word to apply to many Christians’ feelings about Charles Darwin, but many Christians certainly do not approve of his theory, judging it to be a direct attack on their faith. They shouldn’t feel that way. Darwin’s theory of evolution is an attempt to explain the development and adaptation of organisms to their environment. Like every other scientific hypothesis, evolution has nothing to say about any deities. Questions about the existence of God belong to the realm of metaphysics, not physics. To say evolution dispenses with the hand of God is a metaphysical rather than a scientific statement. One might just as well say that Newton’s theory of gravity or Einstein’s theory of Relativity dispenses with the hand of God. An Atheist may believe this but a Theist would see the hand of God behind evolution or gravity.

Darwin also didn’t have anything to say about how life got started in the first place — which still leaves a mighty big role for God to play, for those who are so inclined.But that could be about to change, and things could get a whole lot worse for creationists because of Jeremy England, a young MIT professor who’s proposed a theory, based in thermodynamics, showing that the emergence of life was not accidental, but necessary. “[U]nder certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life,” he was quoted as saying in an article in Quanta magazine early in 2014, that’s since been republished by Scientific American and, more recently, by Business Insider. In essence, he’s saying, life itself evolved out of simpler non-living systems.

I hope that there are not many Christians who would make the argument that because we do not know, at present, precisely what natural processes were responsible for the beginning of life on Earth, that no natural process could have began life and therefore life had to have a supernatural origin. This attribution of divine intervention for things that we do not understand is called the God of the gaps argument. God is held to be active in areas scientific research has not yet penetrated. This is a very bad argument because the gaps are always shrinking. It also does not give God enough credit. God is not active just in matters that we cannot explain, but is present and active in the whole world. The observations we make about the motions and relationships of the objects in the universe and which we call natural laws are all ultimately manifestations of the divine will. The hand of God is everywhere and there are no gaps in His providence.

For this reason, I have never been very impressed with the argument that the origin of life on Earth is so statistically unlikely that only divine intervention could explain it. When God created the universe he also created the natural laws by which the universe operates. If God wanted life in the universe, why would He design it in such a way that the formation of life would be very unlikely, even impossible? It seems to me that the idea that God had to step in to correct the natural course of events makes for a rather clumsy and bumbling God. I believe, rather, that God specifically designed the universe to make the formation of life not just possible but likely and even inevitable. Thus, I do not see Jeremy England’s hypothesis, for it cannot yet rise to the status of theory, as any particular challenge to my faith, but as a sort of confirmation how I believe God interacts with the natural world, provided that the hypothesis is found to be supported by data and research.

Game Over for the Planet

November 19, 2014

Here is another message I just received from Moveon.org.

Dear MoveOn member,

In just hours, the Senate will vote on whether to push forward the Keystone XL pipeline—a disastrous and dangerous proposal that would, in the words of leading climate scientists and environmentalists, be “game over for the planet.”1

Either the Senate will send President Obama a Keystone pipeline bill TODAY—and we will need him to promise to veto it; or the Democrats will defeat the measure by one vote, which means that in just seven weeks, a new Republican majority will send him the pipeline—and we’ll need him to veto it in January.

Either way, President Obama is our last line of defense. So we’re joining with allies to mobilize grassroots support demanding that the president commit to vetoing the pipeline bill—today or early next year.

Will you chip in $3 to help stop the Keystone XL pipeline—and to push Democrats and President Obama to be bold in the fights ahead?

Yes, I’ll chip in.

We’ve already begun fighting back. We’re helping organize rallies outside wavering senators’ offices. We’re mobilizing calls to senators. And we’re providing organizers on the ground with access to MoveOn tools and connections to MoveOn members.  

We’re mobilizing because this is a hugely important fight on its own—and it’ll set the stage for the next two years.

When the Republicans take control of the Senate in January, we can expect a rush of right-wing, anti-climate, anti-science bills: a rollback of President Obama’s efforts to regulate carbon, bills to undermine his climate change agreement with China, and bills that give rein to the extractive practices of frackers, Big Coal, and Big Oil.

Following the midterms, some Democrats are feeling nervous—and they are hearing from the usual chorus of consultants and pundits who advise them that the way to win is to be more like Republicans. This is the kind of horrible advice that lost many Democrats their election—yet conservative Democrats continue to listen! And they won’t stop unless they feel sustained, passionate pressure from their grassroots base—the folks who they need to inspire in order to win future elections.

Will you chip in $3 to help us make sure Democrats stop the Keystone XL pipeline, stop listening to big oil and bad consultants, and fight for progressive values?

Yes, I’ll chip in to help stop Keystone XL and fight for progressive values.

This fight isn’t just a preamble to other environmental attacks—it foreshadows the large range of issues that the right-wing Republican leadership intends to tackle. We’ll face similar assaults on health care, women’s rights, equality, decent wages, Social Security, and civil rights.

In fight after fight, Republicans will push forward a radical agenda and then attempt to pick off a few Democrats to give them the supermajority they need, as well as the veneer of “bipartisanship.”

The only way to preserve affordable health care, see humane reforms in our immigration policy, ensure women make their own decisions about their health, and fully invest in Social Security is to make sure Democrats stand strong. And when the Democrats in the Senate falter, it will come to President Obama to be bold in the use of his veto pen.

Following the midterms, many Democrats are nervous. It’s our job to make them realize that the path to a stronger America, and to future electoral victories, isn’t through caving in—it’s through standing up for our shared values.

Whatever happens in the Senate today, we know one thing for sure: We’re going to need to be stubborn, strong, and stiff-spined for the next two years.

Can you chip in $3 to help us defeat the Keystone pipeline—and prepare for the fights ahead?

Yes, I’ll chip in.

Thanks for all you do.

Anna, Jo, Brian, Corinne, and the rest of the team

Are they serious? According to the geologists, this planet has been in existence for 4.57 billion years. In that time it has survived collision with an object the size of Mars, creating the Moon many other asteroid strikes including the one that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, whatever caused the extinction of ninety-five percent of all life at the end of the Permian Era, ice ages, climate changes, and who knows what else; only to be finally destroyed by a single pipeline.

The trouble I have with the Greens, besides their bullying and obvious lust for power, is that they seem to have some idea that the Earth has existed in a delicate, stable equilibrium from the beginning and that now Man has arrived to upset the balance. I think they get their ideas about nature from Bambi. The truth is that the Earth has changed drastically over the eons, in terms of climate, atmospheric content and even geography. For instance, during the Mesozoic Era (the Age of Dinosaurs), the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may have been as much as five times present levels, even without the nefarious activities of carbon polluters, causing a warmer Earth. Somehow life on the planet survived and even flourished. We have had ice ages over the last several millennia in which the glaciers extended not far north from where I am sitting, but the worst ice age, the glaciers extended almost to the equator. The only thing constant in the history of the Earth is that it is a dynamic, ever changing system. Even if everything the worst alarmists say about climate change were true, it would not mean the end for the planet. We might make ourselves very uncomfortable, perhaps even extinct, but the Earth will survive anything we could possibly do to it.

I should add that Canada is going to develop the tar sands regardless  of what we decide. If we don’t want the Keystone pipeline extended, they can just as easily sell the crude oil to China. I wonder which is a safer method of transporting oil, a pipeline or tankers. I should also add that if there is one thing needed to accomplish the goals Moveon.org says it wants, it would be a robust American economy powered by the recent surge in the energy industry. Rich countries with growing economies can afford to worry about decent wages and equal rights. Poorer countries mired in economic stagnation have to worry about surviving.

Water Before Earth

September 26, 2014

I spotted this science story in the Los Angeles Times. I don’t suppose we think very much about water. Its just there. But some astronomers suspect that much of the water we drink  has been around before the Earth was formed.

Some of the water molecules in your drinking glass were created more than 4.5 billion years ago, according to new research.

That makes them older than the Earth, older than the solar system — even older than the sun itself.

In a study published Thursday in Science, researchers say the distinct chemical signature of the water on Earth and throughout the solar system could occur only if some of that water formed before the swirling disk of dust and gas gave birth to the planets, moons, comets and asteroids.

This primordial water makes up 30% to 50% of the water on Earth, the researchers estimate.

“It’s pretty amazing that a significant fraction of water on Earth predates the sun and the solar system,” said study leader Ilse Cleeves, an astronomer at the University of Michigan.

This finding suggests that water, a key ingredient of life, may be common in young planetary systems across the universe, Cleeves and her colleagues say.

I would think that water, in some form, would be rather common throughout the universe. It is made out of hydrogen and oxygen, two of the more common elements. There is more information about how the astronomers have come to their conclusions in the article.

I do not usually try to reconcile the text of the first chapters of Genesis with the findings of modern science. That is best left to those more learned in science and theology than I am. I am simply content to read Genesis to find out who created the universe and I turn to science to learn how He did it. Still, I am occasionally struck by how the writer of Genesis seems to have a better understanding of creation than any Bronze Age shepherd has any business having. Consider the very first verses.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. 

The first thing God created was light. The earliest event in the universe we can have any knowledge of would be the Big Bang. If you have the right instruments you can still see the light of creation. But it is the second and third days that this story reminds me of.

And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.”So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.

11 Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. 12 The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.

God created water before the dry land. Evidently water predates the planets. Now, plants are shown to be created before the Sun and Moon. This presents a problem since plants cannot survive without the Sun. But instead of plants, think the most primitive forms of life, perhaps bacteria, or even life simpler than bacteria. Some scientists believe that life may have arisen in space and traveled throughout the universe before landing on Earth. If this panspermia hypothesis is correct, then it is possible that life might also predate the formation of the solar system. There is no evidence in favor of this hypothesis. No actual life has been detected in interstellar space, though organic molecules, such as amino acids, have been.

But this is all speculation on my part and I really should leave this to wiser minds.

Soylent Green

February 2, 2014

A little while back I made a reference to the movie Soylent Green while writing on a very different subject. I’ve been thinking about that movie ever since so I might as well write about it. It must be around twenty years since I last watched Soylent Green on video so I only remember the general plot. Soylent Green was based on Harry Harrison’s 1966 science fiction novel Make Room!, Make Room!. I’ve read the book more recently. The movie and book share the same setting, an overpopulated, polluted, dystopian world and mostly the same plot, a detective is investigating a murder in the impossible circumstances of a dying New York City. There are a number of differences, though. Make Room! is set in the year 1999 rather than 2022. I guess the producers of Soylent Green thought that adding another 23 years might make the setting more plausible. Soylent green is not made of people in the book, it is plankton. The murder that the Charlton Heston character is investigating had nothing to do with the corporation or with the environment. The victim was a mob boss and the only reason the police want his murderer is because the New York mafia is afraid that a rival organization is moving in and they are putting pressure on corrupt officials to learn if this is the case.

The book is a whole lot more depressing than the movie. Harry Harrison works to make the world of Make Room!a world of poverty and misery, without any hope for improvement. All people have to hope for is the world might end. In fact, one of the characters is a crazy hermit who expects the end to come when the year ends. When 1999 becomes the year 2000 without incident, he can only despair. Water and food are tightly rationed and diseases of malnutrition, such as kwashiorkor are widespread in the United States. Cars, no longer working because there is no more gasoline, sit abandoned in parking lots, to be used as shelter by the large population of homeless people. Freight is transported by wagons pulled by people. Overpopulation is only getting worse, since the masses of permanently unemployed people have baby after baby to qualify for larger welfare benefits. It goes on and on.

There is, of course, a certain amount of preachiness throughout the descriptions of the miserable life of the future. At one point the Edward G. Robinson character discusses how the world came to be in such awful shape. He laments that if only people started to take overpopulation seriously about thirty years before (when the book was published), the world wouldn’t have been ruined.

These sort of sentiments were widespread throughout the sixties and seventies. This was the era of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and The End of Affluence. It was widely accepted that unless major changes were made, the world of the future was going to be nightmarish. We couldn’t afford have the luxury of an affluent lifestyle, or even basic freedoms if we wanted to save the planet. This sort of messaging was always in the background while I was growing up in the seventies and early eighties and I believed it. I worried about global warming, overpopulation, and the depletion of natural resources. I considered myself an environmentalist.

What changed? Well, if you look around, you might happen to observe that the world was not an overpopulated dystopia in the year 1999 nor is it likely to become one by the year 2022. As I grew older, I couldn’t help noticing that none of the horrible scenarios predicted by the environmental alarmed ever seemed to actually occur. We always had just ten years to save the planet. When ten years elapsed, we still had just ten years to save the planet. I also actually read some environmentalist literature and even got a degree in Environmental Studies. I took what I call my environmentalist wacko class. That helped me to learn just how anti-capitalist, anti-technology, anti-science, anti-American, and anti-human many environmentalists actually are. I have since developed the deepest skepticism about environmentalist claims of doom and gloom. I am on to them.

This is why I am a global warming skeptic. There are some who have suggested that I should defer to the experts. I am told that ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and that drastic action is needed right now. I am not impressed. I happen to possess a functioning memory and very little of what these people are saying is any different than what they were saying forty years ago. Their solution to the crises is the same: the masses must live like medieval serfs while an all powerful government of the elite decide what’s best for everyone.

At some point, you realize that the boy cried wolf is a liar, especially when he seems to have an agenda which involves getting the villagers to hand over wealth and power to the only boy who can save them from the wolf only he sees.

 

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Below Zero

January 6, 2014

As I write this, the temperature here in Madison Indiana is -4° Fahrenheit with wind chill down to around -27°. It is cold outside. It is even cooler than I would like inside, even with the heat on. To distract myself from this winter horror, I will try to think warm thoughts and write a little about temperature. What does it mean to say the temperature is 30 degrees or 100 degrees? What exactly are we measuring? Shouldn’t zero degrees be the coldest possible temperature?

People have known that some days are hotter or colder than other days since time immemorial. Before the invention of the thermometer, it was not possible to measure just how much hotter or colder. People could not quantify or measure temperature, except by personal perception, which is subjective.  A person might feel that it is getting warmer, but he could not be sure if the environment was actually getting warmer, or that he was simply feeling warmer, perhaps because he was exerting himself. Also, there was no way of determining just how warmer today was than yesterday. Notice that I am talking about temperature rather than heat. The two concepts are related but are not the same thing. In any substance the atoms and molecules that make up that substance are not standing still but are moving about. In a liquid or a gas, the atoms can move about freely, while in a solid, they are held in place but still vibrate back and forth. In a sense then, the temperature of an object is the average kinetic energy of the atoms in that object. Heat is defined by physicists as the transfer of thermal energy from a warmer body to a colder body. Heat is not measured by degrees but by joules or calories. ( The calories on food labels are actually kilocalories.)

Thermally_Agitated_Molecule

The basic principle on which the thermometer works was actually discovered in ancient times. Hero of Alexandria knew that air expanded or contracted based the temperature and invented a thermometer of sorts by placing a closed tube with its open end in a container of water. The water would move up or down in the tube according to the temperature. Galileo constructed a similar device, as did several other renaissance scientists. None of these devices had a scale, however, so it was still not possible to quantify temperature with them. They were also sensitive to air pressure.

The first thermometer with a scale was invented by either Francesco Sagredo or Santorio Santorio around 1611-1613.

Deutsch: Santorio Santorio. Français : Portrai...

In 1714, Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit invented a thermometer which used mercury in a glass tube. Once it became possible to

English: Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit

English: Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

manufacture thermometers on a standard design, it was also possible to develop a standard scale. Fahrenheit developed such a scale in 1724. He used three points to calibrate his scale. The temperature of a mixture of water, ice, and ammonium chloride was designated as zero. The temperature of water just as ice began to form was set at 32 and human body temperature at exactly 96. Later, it was discovered that there are about 180 of Fahrenheit’s degrees between the melting and boiling points of water so the scale was calibrated to make exactly 180 degrees so that the boiling point of water on the Fahrenheit scale is 212°. The Fahrenheit Scale is the one most used in the United States and is still widely used in Britain and Canada.

In 1742 Anders Celsius developed a scale in which there were one hundred degrees between the melting and boiling points of water. Curiously, he designated the boiling point of water as 0 and the melting point as 100 so the temperature measurement got lower as it got hotter. The Celsius scale was reversed and adopted as part of the metric system. This scale, sometimes called centigrade, is used worldwide, especially by scientists. Conversion between the two scales is easy enough. Because there are 180 degrees Fahrenheit between the melting and boiling points of water, but only 100 degrees Celsius, each degree Fahrenheit is 9/5 of a degree Celsius. Since Fahrenheit has the melting point of water at 32°, to convert from Fahrenheit to Celsius you subtract 32 and then multiply by 9/5. To convert from Celsius to Fahrenheit, multiply by 5/9 and then add 32.

Anders Celsius

Anders Celsius

The coldest possible temperature, at which the atomic motion stops, is called absolute zero. This is -459.67° Fahrenheit or -273.15°. It is not actually possible to reach absolute zero, but scientists have come close. The lowest temperature ever recorded in a laboratory is around .oooooooo1 degrees Celsius. In 1848, the British physicist William Thompson, later to be Lord Kelvin, proposed a temperature scale using degrees Celsius which began at absolute zero. The Kelvin scale is slightly different from other scales in that it does not rely on the physical properties of any materials, being based on absolute zero. Temperatures in the Kelvin scale are measured in “Kelvins” rather than degrees so that you may say that the melting point of water is 273 K. The Kelvin scale is also extensively used by scientists, especially those who work with very low temperatures.

Lord Kelvin

Lord Kelvin

It’s not working. All of this writing about absolute zero is just making me feel colder.

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Four Thousand Year Old Brain

November 4, 2013

Archeologists and paleontologists and other such people who dig in the dirt to learn about the past consider themselves lucky if they manage to find a complete skeleton of a long extinct animal or a reasonably well preserved foundation of a long destroyed house. Imagine how lucky one of them would feel when finding a perfectly preserved four thousand year old human brain. I found this story in the National Post to be worth reading.

It may look like a burnt log, but it’s actually one of the oldest-known human brains, preserved for 4,000 years after being “scorched and boiled in its own juices.”

“The level of preservation in combination with the age is remarkable,” Frank Rühli at the University of Zurich, Switzerland told New Scientist, adding that most archaeologists simply don’t even look for brain matter. “”If you publish cases like this, people will be more and more aware that they could find original brain tissue too.”

The brain was found in Seyitömer Höyük, a bronze-age settlement in Turkey, yet analysis of the brain showed that the man had actually died in the mountains.

“In 2010, an archeological excavation of a Bronze Age layer in a tumulus [burial mound] near the Western Anatolia city Kütahya revealed fire affected regions with burnt human skeletons and charred wooden objects,” the team behind the find wrote in their paper on the brain. “Inside of the cracked skulls, undecomposed brains were discernible.”

Scientists are speculating that an earthquake shook the ancient human settlement, followed by a fire that cooked the corpse and the brain inside.

The heat would have boiled the brain, wicking out all of the oxygen and moisture and aiding in its preservation.

The chemical makeup of the soil — rich in potassium, magnesium and aluminium — was the final part of the equation, as it reacted with the fatty brain tissue to form “corpse wax” which preserved the tissue.

“Neural tissues are quite distinct, thus having ancient samples would help to better understand adaptations but also [the] evolution of neuropathologies,” Rühli told The Huffington Post. “I think this is very important medically and has huge diagnostic potential.”

“If we want to learn more about the history of neurological disorders, we need to have tissue like this,” Rühli elaborated to New Scientist.

I hope they can find more such specimens. It would be very interesting to compare brain structures from various periods. What I would really like them to find, though, would be a more or less intact sample of a Neanderthal brain. I am fascinated by Neanderthals because while they are almost identical in appearance to Homo Sapiens, though apparently more muscular, there are tantalizing clues from the artifacts they left behind and studies of their genome that suggest their brains were somewhat different and they thought differently than modern humans. Short of doing a sort of Jurassic Park revival, which would probably be unethical even if it were possible, an even partially intact brain might allow us to how much like us they were.

 

Nature’s Clocks

September 23, 2013

When a geologist says that a particular rock is one hundred million years old, how do you know he isn’t just picking a number out of his hat? Well, you don’t, unless you decide to study the methods by which scientists date rocks and minerals. I can’t think of a better place to start than Doug Macdougal’s Nature’s Clocks: How Scientists Measure the Age of Almost Everything. In this book, Macdougal covers the basics of the various sorts of radioactive dating that scientists use to date samples. He begins, appropriately enough at the beginning with the realization by early geologists like James Hutton that the Earth must be far older than Archbishop Usser’s 6000 years.

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By studying the layers of rocks laid down and the fossils associated with each layer, geologists were able to get a good idea of the relative ages of these rocks, a layer on top of another layer is usually younger, but they had no way to measure the absolute age of these rocks or of the Earth until the discovery of radioactivity at the beginning of the twentieth century. It didn’t take long for scientists to realize that the unvarying rate of decay of a sample of a radioactive isotope into its daughter elements provided them with a clock they could use to measure the age of rocks and the Earth. All they had to do was to compare the amount of the daughter element to the amount of the mother element, and by knowing the half-life of the mother element, they could know the age of the sample.

It seems straightforward, but the process is much more complicated and took decades to develop. Scientists needed to find ways of knowing how much of the daughter elements were in the sample when it first formed. They needed to learn ways of minimizing any contamination of the sample. Macdougal describes the development of the three most common methods used for radioactive dating, radiocarbon, potassium-argon, and uranium-lead. This last was developed by Clair Patterson, who realized that the unusually high content of lead in the atmosphere that threatened to contaminate his samples was due to the use of leaded gasoline. This discovery drew attention to the health threat of such widespread usage of lead and his work ultimately led to the banning of leaded gasoline.

Macdougal moves on from the development of radioactive dating techniques to more of the more exciting recent uses, including the accurate dating of small grains of zircon to 4.1 billion years, making them the oldest material ever discovered on Earth. Macdougal explains these processes and discoveries in language that is accessible to the non-scientist, without sacrificing clarity or a basic understanding of just how they know a rock is that old. His enthusiasm for his work is contagious and makes Nature’s Clock actually fun to read. I can recommend it highly for anyone who wants to know more about radioactive dating.

Helium Shortage

August 19, 2013

We may be facing a shortage of helium in the not too distant future. This may seem like a trivial problem. We can live without balloons, right? Actually, helium is used for a number of industrial processes and a shortage, with a corresponding increase in prices could be serious. As you might expect, government has helped to create the problem. Here is the story in the Washington Post.

Earlier this spring, there was a rare bipartisan flurry of activity around something almost every legislator could agree on: Avoiding a sudden lapse in the national supply of helium.

After years of warnings about rising worldwide demand, Congress remembered that a 1996 law demanded the shutdown of the Federal Helium Reserve–a vast underground lake of gas that stretches from Texas to Kansas–just as soon as it paid off the cost of its creation. That will happen at the end of this fiscal year, October 1. If nothing changes, the rest of the 10 billion cubic feet would have to stay underground, cutting off 40 percent of U.S. consumption, while the cost goes through the roof.

In April, the House made short work of a bill that would keep the program operating. The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources followed suit in June. And then: Nothing. Congress leaves for recess today, and no vote is scheduled; the Senate leadership office didn’t return calls for confirmation on whether the bill would be brought to the floor.

And that’s making the folks who run the helium reserve very nervous.

“We are contingency planning for a shutdown of the Amarillo facility,” said regional Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Donna Hummel, referring to the program’s 47-person office. “We will be providing notices to employees of Amarillo, private refiners and storage contract holders–companies that store their helium in our reservoir. If we shut this down, you can imagine some consequences there.”

Yeah, no kidding. Helium isn’t just a party gas–it’s also used in a wide range of advanced manufacturing processes, like making computer chips and optical fibers, as well as research and medical procedures, like cooling magnets for MRIs and visualizing lung tissue. That’s why corporations like Intel lined up to push for the helium reserve’s continued operation, along with private refiners that use pieces of the federal infrastructure. Then there are all the government users–scores of universities and military agencies that get a special rate on helium for things like rocket systems and chemical warfare testing. Most of us owe some piece of our daily lives to helium, without even realizing it.

That wasn’t the case in the mid-1990s, when Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act, giving the Bureau of Land Management a date certain for when it would have to get out of the business. Technically, that isn’t until 2015, but the reserve ended up selling off enough helium to pay back the $1.3 billion loan at a faster-than-anticipated clip.

“Our good work is being punished,” sighs Hummel. “We should’ve dragged our feet a little bit, because we really had two years.”

The Senate bill does solve the problem at least in the short term, allowing the Amarillo office to live off its own revenue selling helium until it gets down to 3 billion cubic feet, which will be retained for federal use. After that, Amarillo will be reduced to a skeleton staff (an earlier reduction in force got rid of most of the younger employees, so most are nearing retirement anyway). And then, the feds will manage helium extraction on government-owned land just like any other natural resource, like natural gas (of which helium is actually a byproduct).

My understanding is that by forcing the sale of so much helium, Congress has helped to push the price below market levels, encouraging increased sales and wasting. No matter what happens with the helium reserve, the price will almost certainly increase.

You might wonder why there could possibly be a shortage of helium since it is the second most common element in the universe. Helium is common throughout the universe, but not here on Earth. Hydrogen and helium have the lightest atoms and the Earth’s gravity is not strong enough to hold them, so there has been a steady leakage of these elements from the Earth’s atmosphere. Hydrogen is very reactive and its atoms combine readily with other atoms to form compounds so most of our hydrogen is still on Earth, in water, rocks, etc. Helium, on the other hand is the most noble of the noble gases. Helium atoms do not combine with any other atoms, so whatever helium was present at the Earth’s creation is mostly long gone. Most of the helium present today is the result of the alpha decay of radioactive elements like uranium, and it appears as a byproduct of natural gas.

Maybe I should start hoarding helium balloons and canisters. There is no telling how valuable each balloon will be twenty years from now.

Helium canister

It could make my fortune. (Photo credit: Get Folksy)

 


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