Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Crap by any other name still stinks

kw: observations, social predators

It was 1974, summertime, and we were praying for the President and the Presidency. It was by then quite evident that President Nixon would soon be impeached, and that he was very, very likely guilty of a number of crimes. For several weeks running the church prayed every Wednesday evening, primarily about this one subject. I learned later that at one of those meetings two visitors (we numbered 400, and visitors were frequent) had been FBI agents. I suppose they left with a good report.

We had two levels of trust to rely on. Firstly, we trusted the rule of law in America, that if impeachment were performed, there was a good chance justice would be done. Secondly, we trusted that God, as the "ruler of the hearts of the kings of the earth", and also the "Prince of peace", was in ultimate control. We did not pray for the President to escape justice, but for proper justice to be done, without prejudice or any "going overboard", in either direction.

Today the news is full of stories about a group calling itself Hutaree; 3,000 news stories just in Google News (Note: this link will get out of date quickly). Their name supposedly means "Christian warrior". Nonsense! It means nothing; it is made up. "Christian warrior" is an oxymoron; a warrior cannot be a Christian, and vice versa. A few Hutaree leaders are manipulative renegades; their followers are fools.

There is a single verse upon which such fools rely, when Jesus told his followers that "from now on when you go, take a sword." It is evident that he was referring to self-defense from bandits they would encounter on their travels (Paul also wrote about "perils from bandits" - 2Cor 11:26). Because within the day, Jesus restrained Peter from using his sword and healed a slave whom Peter had injured, a slave who had been sent to arrest Jesus!

Paul wrote this about policemen (or their First Century equivalent): "For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer." - Rom 13:3-4. A policeman is God's servant.

I could go on, for there are many more verses in support of the Roman government, and not a single one that lends support to anyone who would take up arms against that government. And, believe me, the Empire was a much more oppressive system than today's U.S. Government. But since one word to the wise is sufficient, and it is to the wise that I write, the few verses above are enough to show that the term "Christian militia" being bandied about by the press is a misnomer, and that these criminals are no more Christian than was the Unabomber.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Men gotta stand

kw: observations, physiology

This is for men who are getting to "a certain age".

I had a bit of an unpleasant experience late last year, and it took some thinking to reason it out. My regular physician, after a "digital exam", was worried about my prostate—it has always been oversize—and sent me for an ultrasound and an exam by a urologist. The urologist repeated the ultrasound exam, while adding a dynamic voiding test (catching the urine in a beaker on a recording scale). Both ultrasound exams showed that I was not completely voiding. Thus a half-year saga began.

First he wanted to do a cystoscopy, to see if my bladder showed signs that it was suffering overpressure. This happens when the prostate gets tight and the muscular bladder has to squeeze harder to drive urine out. As any muscle, exercise makes it stronger, and this is visible. The cystoscopy showed no such signs. Then he thought that perhaps my bladder was too weak. With some arm-twisting, he persuaded me to undergo a "urodynamics" test. He gave me a date a few months in the future, for no reason I could fathom.

I used the time well. I decided that if I indeed had a weak bladder, perhaps I could strengthen it. (Feel free to stop reading whenever you've had enough) I remembered that I had, for both ultrasound tests, sat to urinate. I had been sitting to void ever since I'd had cancer surgery in 2000, initially because of fatigue due to chemotherapy, later because I'd become slow to empty, and didn't like standing at a urinal for long periods. But I read that the bladder is tipped in an unfavorable way when a man sits "on the throne". I decided to re-learn to "stand and deliver".

Surprisingly, it wasn't much of a problem. My changed attitude soon removed my anxiety about how much time I might be standing there, and that actually sped things up. Then, by waiting longer before "going", I had the chance to consciously push and void as fast as possible, hoping this would strengthen the bladder walls.

It seems to have worked. The Urodynamics test required two catheters, one to the bladder, and one in the rectum to measure muscular pressures and myoelectrical signals. The attendant recorded my verbal reports of various feelings of fullness and urgency as a machine slowly forced water into the bladder. Once we reached the point of "Enough, already!", I was allowed to stand, push out the catheter and void into a recording beaker.

Afterward, the doctor was puzzled. He said I'd emptied my bladder completely. He could not at that point justify further testing or other interventions. That's good, because he had earlier been speaking of some rather drastic-sounding procedures. He set up an appointment for a year later, to "check on things." I plan to break that one. I'll decide when I think I have a problem. Maybe I'll check back with him in five or ten years.

This is one more case of having to be my own diagnostician. While I'd thought for a long time that I was doing right by sitting to void, I found by experience that the geometry of the bladder makes it harder to get that last couple of ounces out that way. Once again, I stand and deliver, as I had not done for a decade.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The dream to escape oneself

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, environmentalism, synergistics

Just over three years ago I reviewed Jane Poynter's memoir of her two years inside Biosphere 2. At that time, I called the experiment a disaster. Having just read a book with a wider view, Dreaming the Biosphere: The Theater of All Possibilities by Rebecca Reider, it is easier to see why the experience was so disastrous, though I am more sympathetic than before to the Biospherians.

Take a large patch of Arizona desert land, add about a hundred idealists who have been undertaking environmentally activist projects for a decade or so, mix in a billionaire's largess ($200+ million) and a short list of extremely Alpha primates, and this is one possible result: A three acre greenhouse enclosing seven "biomes" that costs $1 million just for its yearly electric bill.

Three acres. Three football fields. That's quite a bit larger than many sailing ships with crews much larger than eight, which have spent months and years on voyages and managed to stay afloat. I am not that interested in the fact that Biosphere 2 was "materially isolated, energetically open". It was a different openness that drove its human dynamics: Mission Control.

I stated before, and will repeat it here: a ship needs a captain. Be he/she benevolent or bastard, there must be a captain. I'll add this proviso: "...aboard ship." That single lack more than any other doomed the Biospherians to their division into two warring factions. The focus of their war was John Allen, head of Mission Control, and his closest aides, particularly Firefly (Margrit Augustine). Simply put, within the first year, four of the Biospherians came to hate John and Margrit, and the other four to worship him. All other woes stemmed from that. For the human experiment to work, John Allen needed to be locked inside with the others. It is a poor experiment that proves something that ship captains have known for centuries.

John was the spearhead of the efforts that led to Biosphere 2's creation and its first few years. He was well known to be a bullying megalomaniac, but he has a psychopath's charm and could always attract new adherents. People who should have known better were tolerant of his bad behavior. But he was only the first of the big Alpha primates. After Ed Bass, the bucks behind the Biosphere, engineered a takeover that included armed sheriffs "buttoning down" the facility, later work soon came to be driven by Columbia University's Wally Broecker, just as bullying, who hired and fired almost with abandon. But Columbia backed out after a decade. Although current B2 programs are being proctored by the University of Arizona, and it is called "Where Science Lives", it is largely a tourist destination. It just isn't big enough to need a big Alpha any more.

Almost lost in the mix are the second group of seven "Mission 2" Biospherians, who stayed inside during the takeover, and remained half a year. Largely due to much less outside interference from Mission Control, they had more of a lifeboat mentality, ran much of their own affairs, sorted out their own social pyramid, and avoided the divisive experience of Mission 1.

Ms Reider initially had some difficulties getting people to talk to her. Over time, she was able to interview the Biospherians and many other members of the original Theater of All Possibilities of Synergia Ranch and other facilities worldwide. But many "official" types, particularly of Columbia U, wanted the pre-Columbia memories expunged, buried. It seems to have taken the author quite a number of years to gather the material for Dreaming.

And what a dream it was! Some thought of Biosphere 2 as a prototype spaceship (one that would have needed ten acres of solar cells to run its physical plant). Some thought of it as a chance to repeat Earth's biotic processes in miniature. Some dreamed of learning things to save Earth systems from further degradation. And to some it was a huge toy, a scientific apparatus on the scale of a supercollider, but intended to elucidate ecological units rather than subatomic particles. Nobody thought of it as a human experiment until it was too late. A contemporary song sums up wisdom that the dreamers forgot: "Wherever you go, there you are."

Friday, March 26, 2010

Are we about to be dethroned again?

kw: observations, climate change

Thinking about the recent books I reviewed on the climate change debate, I remembered history. Since the 15th century, the human race has lost a lot of its purported luster.

From Biblical times to the time of Copernicus and Galileo, at least in the West, humanity was seen as "the image of God", ruling a world around which all the universe revolved. A few discoveries rocked that cozy world-view:
  • Copernicus showed that Earth was not the center of the Universe, but revolved about the Sun. But maybe the Sun was the center?
  • Kepler showed that planetary orbits, Earth's included, were ellipses (slightly distorted by the influence of other planets), rather than perfect circles as taught by Authority.
  • Galileo's successors, with telescopes plus better and better clocks, showed that the Sun was a million times the mass of the earth, and that the bright planets Jupiter and Saturn were themselves more than 100 times as massive. Earth became a minor planet, "third rock from the Sun".
  • Then the Sun was found to be a small-to-middling size star among billions of stars in the Galaxy, which was thought to be all the Universe. Solar system dethroned.
  • Kant proposed that the Galaxy (AKA Milky Way) might be one of many. This was soon confirmed.
  • In the 1920s Hubble showed that there are more galaxies than stars in the Milky Way. Galaxy dethroned.
Milky Way is a large galaxy, but hardly the largest. Solar system is about halfway out to its edge, in a (fortunately) poorly-populated area. We're middling critters on a middling planet of a middling stellar system in a middling galaxy. But we were still the crown of creation, were we not? At least on Earth??
  • Freud, Jung and others showed how faulty our "normal" thought processes are. It remains true that most people would rather die than think, and as B. Russel quipped, most do.
  • Darwin showed that humans are specialized apes, part of the animal kingdom, not a kingdom to ourselves. The Bible had warned us not to be proud; now we could see a few reasons why.
But we still rule the Earth, don't we? This is the premise behind those who panic over our supposed power to "destroy the biosphere". There was an earlier panic about this, called the Cold War. The US and USSR each had about 20,000 megatons of thermonuclear weapons pointed at one another. That is a lot, I'll grant. But consider:
  • Mt. St. Helens, in 1980, blasted a half cubic kilometer of ash and pulverized rock into the sky, in the largest American eruption in historic times. It had the energy of 400 megatons. The largest thermonuclear device ever tested was about 50 megatons.
  • Mt. Pinatubo, in 1991, blasted ten times that amount and had at least ten times the energy of St. Helens, about 1/10 the world nuclear arsenal.
Both volcanoes had strong local effects, such as lots of ash to clean up. There was modest cooling for a few months and some pretty sunsets. The much earlier eruptions of Krakatoa (10,000 MTons) and Toba (a million MTons?) did not terminate civilization, but did cause somewhat difficult winters, one each. If all nuclear weapons were blown off at once, it would equal about two Krakatoas, or a tenth of a Toba. Nuclear winter? Not more than one extra-chilly year.

Our influence is not totally insignificant. It seems we have, to date, added enough CO2 to the atmosphere to add a half a degree C (about a degree F) to global temperature. Just a thousand years ago, the European climate, at least, was 3°C warmer than today. In Dinosaur times, periods of millions of years were as much as 10°C warmer. The biosphere could handle that. Even earlier, a global ice age saw glaciers at sea level at the equator. The biosphere handled that.

I expect one outcome of the climate debate will be a further dethronement of humanity. We're able to rattle the bars of our cage and get noticed, after careful measurement. As for "ending it all"? Hardly.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Moms rule

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, family relations

When Clear Channel Communications bought out a local radio station recently, it spent little time replacing all the conservative talk shows with fare more palatable to the benighted liberal audience they wished to cater to. That means if I want to listen to Rush, Sean, Glenn, or Dr. Laura, I have to listen to a scratchy signal from thirty miles away (no streaming internet audio is allowed in my workplace, for good reason). Somehow they've kept the "other Laura" (Ingraham) and Jerry Doyle. Go figure.

When I saw that Dr. Laura Schlessinger had a new book out, I of course snapped it up, even though its primary audience is women. English is my wife's second language, so she prefers that I read excerpts to her, rather than plow through a book herself. In the case of this book, In Praise of Stay-at-Home Moms, her response to almost any excerpt was, "Well, of course!"

Dr. Laura uses the acronym SAHM, but I prefer just the term Mom with a capital M. That is what I called my Mom, and that is what our son calls his mother, both stay-at-home Moms. We feel very, very fortunate we were able to have my wife stay home to raise our son. However, it took some practice and training for my wife to respond to the inevitable question, "What do you do?" with something other than "I just stay home." She soon learned to say instead, "I'm raising our son." Spoken with quiet confidence, such a response typically ends the matter.

So in our case, reading the book was a case of the author preaching to the choir. Its eight chapters reinforce any wavering Moms in their conviction that nobody else can truly mother their child. While we all know of a woman or two who really should not have tried to raise children, if you have 100 women at random declare confidently, "I am the best Mom for my child(ren)!", 95 of them, or more, will be correct.

Dr. Laura hints at this, which I will come out and say: To any woman who thinks a "professional" would be better at raising her child, ask yourself, would a "professional" be better than you are at keeping your husband's bed warm?

We are glad, my wife and I, that she raised our son. We are glad that she shared those special moments only a Mom can appreciate best. We are equally glad I had sufficient freedom in my schedule that I got to all the soccer games and track meets and concerts and PTA meetings. We don't remember any sacrifices, just the joys. Just like nobody ever said on his deathbed, "I wish I'd spent more time at the office", no Mom would say, "I wish I'd seen less of my kid(s)." And to those mothers who feel they really can't stay home, I sympathize, I really do. Take all the time you can with your kids, and just do the best you can. The years pass so, so fast.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Signs of Spring 5 - Flowering bushes and trees

kw: observations, seasons, photographs

Monday it rained, Tuesday I was out of it, and today I saw what I'd missed:

The Forsythia bushes have burst into bloom. Where over the weekend, I saw none in bloom, I was hard pressed to find any that weren't at least half filled with flowers.

While the flowering cherries are mostly still in bud, a few have also burst out, wherever one is in a warmer or sunnier spot.

I have two clumps of Andromeda. One is barely beginning to show white flower buds, while this one, in my sunniest spot, is fully in bloom.

I'm still waiting for the apple tree. The buds are getting big, but are mostly leaf buds. Some years it blooms first, but like last year, it shows signs this year of planning to go into leaf first.

Humanitarian dilemma

kw: local events, human nature

The big "health care" bill was "passed" and has been signed by the President. It faces immediate challenge by a number of attorneys general on various constitutional grounds. One prominent objection is that it forces everyone to obtain health insurance, whether they want it or not. I am not too bothered about such "forcing", and even now a bit sympathetic to the impulse, for this reason:

I reported a few weeks ago about visiting a friend who had attempted suicide. He and his wife had no health insurance. The medical bills are piling up, and his poor wife (who may soon be ex-wife) is being held responsible, because he is, naturally, incompetent (he is in the state psychiatric hospital at the moment). How expensive is family health insurance? How many premium payments would it take to cover a $200,000 bill for a month of intensive care?

I don't know if people "should" be forced to obtain it, but I sure wish my friend and his wife had been required or somehow induced to be insured, months ago.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ignoring the dentist catches up with me

kw: experiences

This morning I had a root canal, my first ever. I'd missed a couple of years of getting regular cleanings and x-rays, and a big cavity had reamed out a molar. I guess I've become one of those "I told'ja so" stories.

I was more wiped out than I expected, and spent the rest of the day in bed, until midafternoon. There went the workday.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Cyborgs with nothing to show for it

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, space aliens, cyborgs

I have not read any of Timothy Zahn's "Cobra" series (published 1985-88), so for me Cobra Alliance, the first of the "Cobra War" series, had to stand alone. That it did; there is enough backstory and fill-in to eliminate the sense of creeping anomaly so often found in later "series" books.

For those who are familiar with the older books, these continue with a new generation. The cyborg warriors known as Cobras are being pushed aside by a political generation that can't understand the expense. But a crisis is developing that will prove their worth. This novel is, then, primarily setting up that situation, and it ends in a brief lull between one battle and another.

I am most intrigued by the Cobras themselves. They are greatly enhanced humans, engineered to look no different from non-Cobras, to suit their role as infiltrators and guerrilla fighters. Their capabilities are gradually unfolded as the story progresses, and include:
  • Antipersonnel lasers in the index fingers.
  • An anti-armor laser in the calf of one leg.
  • Ceramic inserts in the weight-bearing skeleton.
  • Servomotors at key joints to enhance speed and strength.
  • A nanocomputer in the braincase for targeting, reflex enhancement, and coordination.
  • A sonic disruptor that can both disable opponents and scramble surveillance devices.
  • A "stun gun" electrostatic weapon.
  • Enhanced sight and hearing.
These things come at a cost; few Cobras (who survive combat) live beyond sixty years, at a time that 90-100-year life spans are pretty standard. On another human world, a different technology, largely external, has produced somewhat lesser capabilities in fighters called Djinn (plural; singular is Djinni). Their finger/glove lasers are more powerful, but they lack leg lasers, for example.

The energetics of Cobra cyborgs are problematic. I don't recall reading of a means for accumulating power so that the leg laser can run for an extended time without seriously harming—or enervating—the Cobra. A trained human can supply half a horsepower (~400W) of energy for minutes at a time, but metal-cutting lasers similar to those used in the steel industry are multi-kilowatt devices. They are also bigger than the average shinbone (tibia).

The Alliance of the title is that between the Cobras and the Djinn, which very gradually develops as the latter learn to overcome the prejudices of a generation or two who grew up thinking of the Cobras as enemies. They are eventually forced together in combination against invading Troft, birdlike aliens intent on recovering losses sustained in the wars detailed in the earlier trilogy. This partially-formed alliance seeks help from more populated planets as the novel ends, setting the scene for Cobra Guardian, due out some months from now.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Signs of Spring 4 - geese so high

kw: observations, seasons, photographs

This image, which has been enhanced to a fair-thee-well, shows a skein of geese on their way to Canada as they flew over about noontime. This skein is clearly not local geese. They were flying well above the aircraft on approach to Philadelphia Airport, some thirty miles away.

My wife spotted them. We were out doing yard work, and I could hear them. I love hearing geese fly over (I like it less well when they spend any time on the lawn, filling it with their droppings).

This photo was with my smaller camera, zoomed out all the way at 3x. Then I cropped out just the geese, another about 3x effective zoom. They were way, way up there.

It was a lovely day for yard work, so we spent most of it outdoors. I pruned some big upright branches out of the apple tree, which didn't take long. What took the next two hours was cutting and bundling the debris. We also weeded and did some other trimming and general cleanup. When the mailman went by in the late afternoon, I was up the tree again, putting concrete into a hollow spot on a branch. I remarked to him that I seem to pick the nicest days for doing overly strenuous work. He just laughed. Happy Spring, everyone!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Finally, a word from the other side

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, global warming, debates, debunking, polemics

It is ironic that the prior book I reviewed is a vehemently pro-global-warming polemic, and this next is just as vehemently anti-global-warming, just as polemical. The new book is Heaven and Earth: Global Warming; the Missing Science by Dr. Ian Plimer.

The author knows he has a very tough row to hoe, so he goes the proverbial extra mile (or ten): Where most books of scientific popularization have 200 or fewer references, he has more than 2,000, which he has put in footnotes rather than endnotes. I am glad. I prefer footnotes; I am disinclined to keep paging to the back of the book, and tend to read endnotes, if at all, after the rest of the book. I don't mind glancing down now and again to see if a note has more material than just a bibliographic reference.

Long before the debate over global warning, when the term "greenhouse effect" was still in vogue, I read an article in which the author stated that even if CO2 were to rise to 1% the temperature would rise no more than 4°C or 7°F. That is a lot but it not great as some claims we are hearing.

A point which Dr. Plimer makes, which he supports with this chart, is that most of the greenhouse warming that CO2 can produce has been accomplished before the amount reaches 100 ppm.

We have here a classic situation of diminishing returns. It is one point in the book that I'll treat in some detail, then follow with a more general survey. The key to understanding it is to look at the way the spectrum of CO2 changes with its amount. The following chart shows the visible and infrared spectra of oxygen, CO2, and water. These spectra are all normalized to some specific depth of the pure gas, probably one meter (though the reference doesn't say).

See how the green line for CO2's spectrum has just a few bands, and only three that are "strong"? Let us suppose that this is for one meter of pure CO2. The atmosphere has just under 400 parts per million (ppm) at present, which is one part in 2,500. That means one meter of gas is distributed in 2.5 km of atmosphere. The effective thickness of the atmosphere is about 5 km, if you allow for the rapid thinning of air with altitude. So this line is probably quite close to the actual absorption spectrum of all the CO2 in the atmosphere between the ground and space.

Now, what happens as CO2 concentration changes? I prepared a simple spectral band absorption model to show this. First, a numerical example. Let us assume that the "standard amount" absorbs 75% of the radiation at a particular wavelength. What happens when there is three times that amount? The approach is to take the proportion that is transmitted (1-0.75 = 0.25), take it to the third power to get the new transmission (0.253 = 0.0156), and subtract from 1 to get the new absorption (0.984 or 98.4%).

I prepared the chart below for an absorption band with a gaussian shape at low concentration, shown by the lower, black line. If the amount of gas is ten times as much, shown by the red line, there is a section with nearly 100% absorption, and the whole line is wider. With each increase by a factor of ten, the absorption band widens by a smaller and smaller amount. Going from the red line to the dashed orange line, though the amount of absorbing gas increases by a factor of 10,000, the total absorption increases only by about a factor of three.
I designed this example so that the red line approximates the absorption of CO2 near a wavelength of four microns, at 400 ppm for the full depth of the atmosphere. The solid lines above that one are for 4,000 ppm (0.4%) and 4%, at which point the amount of influence CO2 might have on the atmosphere is doubled. Four percent is also the level CO2 might conceivably achieve if we burn all known fossil fuels. This would also lower atmospheric oxygen by nearly 2%; how likely is that? Nonetheless, I show, with the two dashed lines, what the absorption would be if the atmosphere were 40% CO2, and if there were nothing but CO2 in an atmosphere with four times the density of today's atmosphere; a situation 1/10th as severe as that on Venus!

One might then ask, how can it be that Venus's temperature is 500°C? First of all, Venus receives twice the sunlight that Earth does. This means its equilibrium, airless temperature would be 65°C or 150°F. The airless temperature for Earth (experienced by the Moon) is 5.4°C or 42°F. Earth's actual equilibrium temperature is about 15°C or 59°F, mainly due to water vapor.

Take a look at what water vapor (the blue line) does in the 4-line chart above. It absorbs all wavelengths longer than 10 microns, and about half of radiation longer than 1 micron. If water were a much larger amount of the atmosphere, it would absorb so much of the outgoing radiation that a much higher temperature would be needed to move the thermal radiation to a short enough wavelength to escape to space.

CO2 has a very low absorption band longer than 6 microns, which in a very thick atmosphere absorbs everything. The "valleys" between the peaks shown also "fill up", absorbing everything from about 1.5 microns on. It requires a temperature of about 500°C to overcome this absorption, for an atmosphere such as that on Venus.

This, then is the physical explanation of the "greenhouse effect". Greenhouse gases such as water, CO2 or methane allow most incoming, shortwave radiation to reach the ground. Radiation in the absorption bands of these gases just heats the gases themselves, and the air they are part of. For the heated ground to radiate its heat back into space, it must emit enough radiation to get through the greenhouse gases. The warmer the ground is, the shorter is the effective wavelength of its thermal radiation. Longwave energy absorbed by the greenhouse gases heats up those gases, and about half of that is radiated back to the ground, so the more absorption there is, the warmer the ground has to get to achieve thermal balance. Of course, all this is complicated on a real planet because much of the heating goes into producing wind, but all energy turns into heat sooner or later.

The final point on this subject is this. At the concentrations CO2 has ranged within throughout history, its greatest effect has probably never been greater than about 3 times its present value. In the distant past, it reached concentrations as great as 1% (10,000 ppm). During one such time there was an ice age! It is never likely to come anywhere close to 1% again. Now for a summary of Dr. Plimer's message.

He is called a "denier" by some, those he might call "warmists". He makes the point that a belief in global warming has become like a religion to some. No matter what people call themselves, even atheists have strongly held beliefs about something, which they hold with religious fervor. Everybody believes in something, particularly those who deny it the loudest.

The little chart above shows average global temperatures for the past 2,000 years. I deliberately went to a source different from the ones Dr. Plimer uses. If you click on it to see the larger version, you'll be able to read the reference. This prominently shows the Medieval Warming, which was warmer than 1998, the warmest year since the Industrial Revolution began in the 1800s. With this and similar data, Dr. Plimer asks the questions, "How did it get so warm in the years around 900 and 1000, when CO2 was so much lower than it is today?" and "Why were the Little Ice Age of 1400-1850 and the late Roman period before 800 so much colder?" Unless these questions can be answered, his point is that temperature is not controlled by CO2.
Then he shows the comparison graph above, on page 89. The lower half is a similar, but smoothed, chart showing the Medieval Warming and the Little Ice Age as they have been understood by climate scientists for many years. The upper chart is the infamous "hockey stick" chart produced by Michael Mann and his colleagues. This chart has been totally discredited by several scientists, but is the one used by the IPCC to base its conclusions that we are all in grave danger. Is it any surprise that Dr. Plimer and others deny there is much to worry about? or that they question the motives of the leading authors of the IPCC Report?

The structure of the book echoes its short title. The Sun (Heaven) has by far the greatest influence on weather and climate. Its variation due to the sunspot cycle and longer cycles (which periodically eliminate sunspots for 50-100 years) has a significant, well-measured effect on climate. After an introductory chapter and one on history, the Sun and influences on solar influx to Earth fill one large chapter. Other heavenly influences include cosmic rays; when the sun is weaker, its reduced magnetic field lets more cosmic rays get through, and average cloudiness increases, further reducing the amount of sunlight that reaches the ground. Cooling ensues. Warming follows a strengthened sun, amplified by a reduced cloud cover. The Maunder Minimum, a 70-year period almost without sunspots, was the coldest part of the Little Ice Age.

In his History chapter, he makes the point again and again that warming periods have been periods of increased productivity and expansion of species, and that cooling periods are marked by desertification, loss of species or mass extinction, and (in the Holocene at least) crop losses leading to reduction in human numbers. He repeats these points throughout the book, particularly in the Sun chapter, where he asks, if global warming was good for the early Romans, and even better for the late Medieval Europeans, why do IPCC scientists claim it will be bad for us?

The fourth chapter, also a long one, is "Earth". While he hits a lot of points, a big one is volcanoes. Mass extinctions seem to have occurred in sychrony with extra-large "supervolcano" eruptions that took thousands of years to burn themselves out. Each such episode produced millions of cubic kilometers of lava, and thousands of cubic kilometers of "stuff" was put into the atmosphere. A characteristic of volcanic activity is that it produces lots and lots of CO2, yet because of Sulfur oxides and solid matter also blasted into the sky, cooling is the result. By the time the cooling is over, earth processes have usually absorbed all the extra CO2 as well. But there is another, continuous source of volcanic activity, which arises in the Water chapter.

Before Water he spends a chapter on Ice, primarily the Snowball Earth period in the late Precambrian period about 700 million years ago (and perhaps another one 2,000 million years ago). Both occurred when CO2 was many times denser than it is today.

In the Water chapter he addresses the question, "Will the seas become acid?" If you measure the acidity of soda, water with a few percent CO2, it is definitely a weak acid. Not as strong as vinegar, but acid nonetheless. However, if you put almost any common kind of crust-forming rock, such as granite or basalt, in the soda, and cap it for a few weeks or months, the acidity will reduce and eventually turn to alkali. Even though granite is called an "acidic" rock, that is only with reference to basalt, which is more strongly alkaline.

Guess what forms the sea floor? Basalt. What is going on deep under the sea? For one thing, CO2 in sea water quickly hydrolyzes to bicarbonate (HCO3- ion), which is less acidic. Then bicarbonate reacts with basalt to change silicates to carbonates, except that much of it is captured by snails, clams and other growing sea critters to make their carbonate shells also. All these processes result in a sea that is distinctly alkaline.

There is a greater source of CO2 under the sea, however. The Mid-Ocean Ridge is an 80,000-km system of "spreading center" volcanism that runs through every ocean basin. The average spreading rate is 5cm/y. That results in 4 cubic km of new lava produced every year (that is 30 million tons per day). These sea-floor basalts erupt at a temperature near 1000°C. It takes a lot of water to cool them down to the 0-5°C temperature of the deep ocean. Many cubic km of water are heated continuously by this outflow. Each cubic km of lava has a lot of CO2 in it, which dissolves in the deep water. This water has been measured to have the capacity to hold a lot more CO2 than what these Mid-Ocean Ridge produces. This amount is much greater than what we are producing with all our industry. The fresh basalt reacts with some of it to keep the oceans alkaline.

A short chapter on Air challenges the entire notion of the "greenhouse effect". The radiation-in-radiation-out definition I gave above is different from what the author espouses. I don't stand with him on that one. I understand the term is a metaphor that isn't supposed to exactly equate CO2 or any other gas to the glass in a greenhouse. We all know greenhouses are more for keeping freezing or drying wind off the plants, and often have to be either heated or cooled, but they do tend to gather heat by differential radiation absorption, and this is the part of the metaphor that is useful.

In his final chapter, "Et Moi", he recapitulates his main points, and closes by asking "What if I am wrong?" Only the "wildest" of the "warmers" will claim that during the present century warming will be greater than 3°C, yet the Medieval Warming was 3°C warmer than today, with very salutary effects on all. The sea didn't wipe out coastal settlements and crops boomed. He winds up with 18 "even if" points, the last being, "Even if mitigation were as cost effective as adaptation, the public sector, which emits twice as much carbon as the private sector, must cut its own emissions by half before it preaches to us."

He started that chapter by stating, "...the greatest threat...is from policy responses to perceived global warming and the demolishing of dissent." I agree with him on this. Is he wrong, folks? Prove it. Use real data, not Mann-style "hockey stick" fraud. But I have skimmed the internet and seen mostly ad hominem fallacies against him in response to the points in this book. Their authors are a shame to the profession of science.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Signs of Spring 3 - first flowers

kw: observations, photographs, seasons

A few days ago the Aconite was the first Spring flower to bloom. Ten or more years ago, the Forsythia would bloom first, whenever Spring came of a sudden in early March. Not lately.

Aconite is a pretty weed. I have seen these for sale at nurseries, but they are native to the area and easy to obtain, best from seed in the summer; just pull off a few seed heads.

Funny though; some people consider them a noxious weed and root them out. They have not proved invasive in our garden. We have just two patches of them that stay about the same year after year.

The Crocuses seldom arrive earlier than the Aconite or Forsythia. This year, they are between them, as the Forsythia have yet to bloom. Forsythia has become an April flower since about 1998.

Many of our Crocuses have been eaten by the resident rabbit. She is bigger than ever this year. I think I read that Saffron is made from Crocus pollen. Maybe it is actually from a related plant. Anyway, Crocus flower buds are very edible and only the fact that we have a lot of them has left a few uneaten.

In the past, Tulips would come up by now. This year in particular, the heavy snow cover until last week has cooled the ground and led to a delayed Spring.

Finally, this is today's first Daffodil. I wish I'd caught it in full sun, earlier in the day, but one must work, don'cha know. Our daffodils spread more than the Aconite does. We've had to thin them out a couple times in the fifteen years we've been here.

The flower I am most eagerly awaiting is the blossoms on the Apple tree. Then I'll know Spring is fully under weigh.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Emphasis on seeing

kw: observations, analysis, graphics

I spent yesterday at a course or seminar by Edward Tufte, famous for promoting large "supergraphic" displays over the kind of overly focused walk-along-the-garden-path approach taken by many presenters, particularly when using display software such as PowerPoint. Dr. Tufte's very favorite graphic image seems to be this 1869 chart by Charles Minard, which shows the "progress" of Napoleon's 1812 advance and failed attack on Moscow, and his retreat in the dead of winter.

This chart shows at least six variables plotted over time, for the months of the campaign. There is a rather large file behind this small reproduction; click it to see. Its story of the death of nearly 420,000 men by disease and cold makes it one of the most effective graphics ever devised.

The following, a much less rich image, nonetheless has a number of salutary design features; it is not one of Dr. Tufte's examples, but one I selected for my own analysis. It shows American home prices, adjusted for inflation and indexed to 1890.

Dr. Tufte frequently complains of "chartjunk". There is little of that here. He promotes such a combination of words and graphic elements. Not only does it draw us along the time line, but the highlighted epochs emphasize the historical context of certain inflections. I would, however, fault this chart for its over-extrapolated dashed line on the right. Without some indication of variability, this looks too much like an "I said so" kind of prediction.

In recent years, Dr. Tufte has partly shifted his focus from large-scale graphics to those of the smallest practicable scale. He was inspired by Galileo's use of small images right in the text of his writings about his telescopic observations.

The images of Saturn as he saw them under different atmospheric conditions are just the right size. They almost serve as words in the text. There is no need for the eyes to jump to a "Figure" at the margin and back to the text one is reading.

The name Dr. Tufte uses for little line graphics that fit right into the text is Sparkline. Here is an example of ten lines of a financial table with Sparklines showing the historical trend of share prices during the prior year. Rather than convey exact quantitative measures, as some graphs are intended to do, Sparklines offer a quick impression of a trend or shape with meaning of its own.

These are remarkable for a single feature: nine of them look almost identical. Only the fifth line has a visibly different shape. This leads to further investigation, to determine that it is a different kind of fund than the others; bond rather than equity.

Sparklines have apparently already made it into the mainstream. This Yahoo Finance example shows a number of "hot" pieces of data that are updated as shares are traded. However, Dr. Tufte would deplore the boxes around the lines. They distract from the content.

Of a half-dozen principles of data presentation, one with which I was most impressed is to take better advantage of the intelligence and initiative of the audience. They know how to read, so don't read to them. But even more so, don't try to lead them by the nose. Begin a presentation with a handout and give them time to read it. Then the "prepared slides" can serve as visual aids for answering questions. You'll just need to be prepared to hop around!

In addition to a number of good ideas, each participant came away from the conference with a set of Dr. Tufte's four principal books about the use (and misuse) of graphics. I plan to read them all right through, but don't expect reviews in this space (except perhaps an omnibus review when I finish). It would be too much like reviewing an encyclopedia.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Pi Day perfection

kw: mathematics, commemorations

A day or two ago I commented on discovering the celebration of "Pi Day", which occurs 3/14 (or 3.14) each year. Looked at another way, considering years and decimals, the next and only Millennial Pi Day would be year 3141.5926535..., or AD 3141, August 5 at 7:38:43 AM, plus about a third of a second. I figure by then people who have any interest will be able to calculate the appropriate time to the nanosecond or better, once they decide which year type to use (civil, tropical, and so forth).

Monday, March 15, 2010

Doom versus Doom

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, climate change, polemics, science

The competition for the hearts and souls of America continues. The latest salvo in the Climate War is A World Without Ice by Henry Pollack, PhD, with a foreword by Al Gore. There is no mistaking which viewpoint Dr. Pollack supports, and after reading the book, I suspect he would object to my use of "viewpoint". To him, human-caused climate change is settled science.

The book, to be a book, needed something more than a couple of long essays about the science of climate change and its consequences. Here is a brief outline:
  • Two chapters of historical survey, one on the discovery of the Antarctic continent and the Arctic regions by Europeans and one on the occurrence of ice throughout the solar system.
  • Further history, of the ice ages of the past 2-3 million years.
  • A chapter "Warming Up" that covers the Holocene, the past 11-12 thousand years, including the "Little Ice Age" of 200 years ago and the Medieval Warm Period about a thousand years ago.
  • Chapters 5 and 6 detail the natural and human causes of climate change.
  • Then the consequences of a rise in the oceans.
  • Finally a survey of possible policies to mitigate the human consequences.
It is this last chapter that I find very salutary. While the author's tone is frequently angry, he takes a realistic look at possible futures, and urges us to actions that might genuinely help. Far too many books have taken the attitude "We have to stop this battleship on a dime". Knowing that such a thing is not possible, Dr. Pollack discusses steps we can take to survive what must come, and to keep more of it from coming.

One key to understanding what we have to work with emerges from graphs like the following, based on data found here (and see Lisiecki, L. E. and M. E. Raymo (2005). A Pliocene-Pleistocene stack of 57 globally distributed benthic δ18O records. Paleoceanography 20: PA1003).
The past seven ice age cold cycles have occurred on a 100,000-year schedule, while earlier ones came about every 41,000 years, beginning about 2.9 million years ago. If this graph is accurate (always a concern), three of the last four warm cycles have gotten warmer than the present (Holocene) epoch has to date.

As concerns agriculture, 100,000 years or so is not enough time for significant new species to arise. The species that exist today have weathered at least a cycle or two of cooling and warming. However, our over-tuned cereal varieties are probably less robust and will need our care—and possible augmentation from non-domestic varieties—to continue to produce well in a changed climate.

The author correctly identifies sea level changes as the most significant effect, in human terms. Whether climate change occurs naturally or is human-caused, warming is warming, and water is water, and ice is ice: unless we enter an ice age cooling cycle, things are going to get warmer, and the water is going to rise. There is little agreement as to whether certain regions will benefit or not from changes in yearly temperature and shifting rainfall patterns (though I think investing in Canadian farmland might be a good idea).

The author directs his argument against what he calls "four trenches", as though this were warfare on the WWI model. The four levels of denial have been:
  • To deny that the instrumental records are accurate, or have been interpreted properly, primarily to account for cities warming their surroundings. (This is countered by noting that 3/4 of Earth's area is ocean, and no cities have been built at sea.)
  • To deny that humans have a significant effect. (I personally think the amount of human causation is being overstated, but this is beside the point, if warming is occurring.)
  • To state that warming and more carbon dioxide will help agriculture. (Maybe so, maybe not. Crops might benefit in some areas but greater heat may cause more heat stress, countering the benefits of more access to carbon dioxide.)
  • To claim that it will cost too much. (I have a story as an analogy. A friend has no health insurance, and says she cannot afford it. I showed her that she cannot afford to be treated at any hospital unless she has insurance. "Eat hot dogs, but get insured.")
It is time to quit pointing blame and to plan for the future. I particularly appreciate this aspect of the author's message.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


kw: mathematics, commemorations

You never know it all. I just turned on my computer for the first time all day, to check email, and the Google logo informed me that this is Pi Day: 3.14! Never had heard of it.

I guess the "best" Pi day would be 3.14.1593, just over four centuries past.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


kw: music, dancing, photographs

Saturday was Performathon day, a fundraiser for Darlington Arts Center in Boothwyn, PA. I teach guitar there one evening a week. One of my students performed, as did I. However, I don't have permission to use his picture, so I've shown a couple of others.

The day opened with performances by the Darlington Dance Troupe. As you can see, they like parasols. There were several individual performances, then a couple of group numbers.

These pictures were taken by available light: this one is f/10, 1/40 sec, ISO 800. I've boosted the gamma here, as the original was quite dark. I could have used f/5, but needed the depth of field.

A fellow faculty member, a professional photographer on the side, traded lenses with me for part of the day. The second picture is with his lens. Mine goes only to f/5 at the focal length used, but with his lens, I shot it at f/3.5, 1/60 sec, ISO 800. No gamma adjustment needed.

These girls, sisters, were the hit of the show, playing a few piano duets. I am glad I played earlier and didn't have to follow them!

There had been a plan to do sidewalk painting outside, but constant rain squashed that idea. There was a communal mural painting in the afternoon, and more musical performances.

A staff member told me the Performathon is quite a lot of work for them, but she thought it better than the usual boring Saturday.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Desktop druses

kw: minerals, photographs

From time to time I change the wallpaper on my computer desktop. This time I decided to use mineral druses. A druse is a coating of crystals. I went to my own rock collection and took a few pictures. Here are the two best. Click on either one to retrieve a 1600x1200 version, which you can download for your own use.

First is a natural mineral specimen, blue Fluorite from Illinois. I didn't collect this one myself, but traded for it, with a collector who wanted one of my green fluorite specimens from Azusa. The Azusa locality is now covered by a housing development, so he could not collect from there.

This is a druse-on-a-druse that I grew in a jar. The original mix was copper sulfate (root killer you get at the hardware store), table salt (sodium chloride) and just a piece or two of calcium chloride (from a bag of ice melter), in distilled water. The greenish-blue crystals are copper chloride. Once they had grown, I poured off the liquor, which contained mostly sodium sulfate, and the clear needles of calcium sulfate (Gypsum or Selenite) grew as the rest of the water evaporated. This is magnified; the needles are 2-3mm long.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Signs of Spring 2 - early bugs

kw: observations, seasons, photographs

As Winter gives way to Spring, overwintering insects that have been hiding under chips of bark or in leaf litter begin to get out and look for mates. These scant resources feed some of the "early birds" that also come out of hiding.

This little moth, just 8mm long, was sitting on my storm door when I left the house yesterday morning. Were it on a tree branch, it would look like a bird dropping and go unnoticed.

The beetle in the other photo, which looks a lot like a firefly, is about 14mm long. I didn't turn it over to see if it is a firefly. It showed up when I returned home in the afternoon.

I've seen a few other insects about, including a couple of flies. I have no interest in photographing flies.

Click on either picture to see the full-size clips, one 600 pixels wide, the other 750. They illustrate the macro capabilities of the Canon SD1200. I had the camera set to 6Mpx, which produces, to my eye, cleaner images than the default mode of 10Mpx.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The big engine that really could

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, mysteries

If Agatha Christie had tried her hand at science fiction, this is the kind of story she would write. Here's the scene: aboard a train that takes a few weeks to cross…the Galaxy; something like eight nonhuman species, plus humans, are aboard; two weeks into the trip two nonhumans die; Frank Compton, former space cop, and his associate, the half-human Bayta, investigate; the murderer, it turns out, is very, very clever and very, very elusive; more deaths occur – they seem to be dropping like dominoes; there is no getting off this train short of its destination, still a month away.

In the world—or Galaxy—created by Timothy Zahn for The Domino Pattern, latest in his Quadrail series, mysterious aliens have produced a galaxy-spanning "subway tube" with trains energized by a "coreline" that zips them along at about a light year per minute. The "local", with stops every few dozen light years, follows the spiral arms, and even an "express" that makes few stops takes about 100 days to sweep inward then outward a total of some 150,000 light years. So there is a "super-express" that cuts straight across, runs a little faster, and gets you there in 40 days, nonstop.

Upon this backdrop the mysterious series of murders, and their investigation, play out. At the risk of spoiling one of the plot twists, an innovative murder method requires disseminating (in food) microbes of the heavy-metal-concentrating type, which are already loaded with the toxic metal Cadmium. At a later time, a potent antibiotic is sprayed into the air supply. The dying microbes release their Cadmium and the victims die of heavy metal poisoning. This requires beings who are very sensitive to Cd poisoning, which the author conveniently supplies.

Humans take a bit more killing than that. According to the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) for Cadmium (I do work for a chemical company), the LD50 for Cd in rats is 2.3 g/kg and in mice it is 0.9 g/kg. Let's assume humans are more like mice than rats. A gram per kilogram means it would take 100 grams of Cd to have a 50% chance of killing me; I weigh 100 kg. That is a lot of microbes. The author did well to pick Cd, though; its effects are seen much more quickly than those of Arsenic or Lead.

Another backdrop element in the series is the Modhri, an intelligent, telepathic coral symbiote that can gradually take over the actions of most beings. It appears quite capable of taking over the Galaxy, and Frank Compton's main mission is to root out infestations of Modhri Walkers and Eyes. Though there are many of these, there is only one Modhri; it is kind of like the Borg in Star Trek, without the need for technological "assimilation". Of course, there is a segment of Modhri on the Quadrail, which complicates matters, particularly as it is necessarily out of communication with the main Galactic Modhri during the journey.

It interests me that I read this book in two days. The nonfiction book I reviewed immediately prior is about the same size, but took more than a week to read. And it is very well written, even using dialogue very well. Somehow, the best fiction just makes for faster reading than the best nonfiction.

I didn't go to the effort to map out the plot line. The book is about the right size for a 7-turn formula, and the two major plot reversals are enough to confirm my guess. Since the second "cut to the chase" introduced a major new element, we can expect following books of the series to take a different tack in the standing of the Modhri.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Is an observer needed?

kw: science, quantum theory

After writing yesterday's review of The Age of Entanglement, I continued thinking about the issues raised by entanglement and the "observer problem" that is at the root of the disagreements over the philosophy of quantum theory.

One of the thought experiments that probes the issue is Schrodinger's Cat. A live cat is placed in a box that contains a tiny bit of radioactive material, a detector, and some means of the detector triggering the release of poison gas when the detector detects a radioactive decay. The amount of radioactive material and the placement of the detector are designed such that there is a 50% chance the device will trigger within one hour.

When the box is opened after one hour, is the cat alive or dead? Just before you open the box, in what state is the cat? According to some interpretations of quantum mechanics, the cat is in a superposition of states, both dead and alive. Opening the box to observe the cat "collapses the wavefunction" (is there meaning in those three words?) and produces either a dead cat or a living cat, out of an ambiguous state.

Then there is an extension of the matter, the "Wigner's friend" version: Wigner steps out of the lab, and while he is gone, his friend performs the experiment. Well after the hour has passed, Wigner returns, to be told the result by his friend. Now we are one step removed. Before Wigner returns, is his friend in an ambiguous state, a mixture of happy over a live cat and sad over a dead one? Does some wavefunction collapse when Wigner returns?

I always ask, "How about the cat? Is it an observer?" I guess the answer is, "Not to a physicist." But to me, the detector is an observer! It observes the radioactive decay (or not) and takes action accordingly. You could replace it with a piece of sensitive film, and develop the film. There will be a spot, or there will not be a spot. Does the spot exist before the film is developed? When does the wavefunction collapse? Whatever that might mean, I say it collapses when the particle's motion is diverted or stopped.

Consider interference, whether carried out with light (photons) or electrons, or even with viruses (this has been done!). Let's use electrons. A beam of electrons passes trough one very small hole, which leaves a coherent, spreading beam. This then strikes a plate that contains two holes or slits. A photographic film placed a suitable distance beyond the two slits is exposed for a while, enough time for many thousands of electrons to strike it. Then it is removed and developed. The banded pattern that shows up on the developed film indicates interference, that the electrons behaved as waves when passing through the slits.

It is easy to figure out how to lower the current in the electron beam such that the electrons arrive one at a time; indeed, such that there is never more than one electron anywhere in the whole beam, from emitter to film, at any particular time. It takes a long time to gather thousands of "hits" on the film, but what do we see when the film is developed? We see the same banded pattern. This has been done. It seems to prove that each electron somehow goes through both slits and interferes with itself! Yet the banded pattern is made up of many tiny dots, each indicating where an electron struck the film. They just didn't strike the film in the "low" bands, and they did strike in great numbers in the "high" bands.

Where is the observer in this? Is it the person who develops the film? Is it the film itself? Crucially for this setup, if no film is put into the path of the beam, do the electrons still pass through space as a fan of narrow beams that would produce a banded pattern if film were ever put into place? I say they do, but some interpreters of quantum theory say that there is no pattern unless something is there to record it. And that shows just how crazy this all can get.

Actually, there are a few things that are already "observing" the electrons! The first hole, that spreads the beam and makes it coherent, has "observed" the positions of electrons and selected only certain ones in a narrow range of positions. This, by Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, deflects them, though they have not, it seems, "touched" the edges of the hole. In actuality, they must have done so, their wave nature "feeling" the size of the hole so they'll "know" just how much to spread out! Sorry for the anthropomorphism here, but it is by far the briefest way to describe what is going on.

Then there are the two holes or two slits that turn a portion of the beam into two beams that can interfere with one another. They also "observe" electrons, and select certain ones which are in the "right" range of positions to pass onward.

This leads to my conclusion: anything that disturbs a particle's motion can be considered an observer. The universe was ticking along quite nicely for a long, long time before there were brainy macroanimals about who could think they were somehow privileged to be "the observers".

And one more consequence of the Uncertainty Principle: no particle is ever at rest. When a barrier "stops" a particle, that particle is either destroyed or it takes up a different kind of motion within the material of the barrier. Typically, bosons such as photons, if they are not reflected or refracted, are destroyed and turn into phonons (heat), while fermions such as electrons or protons "join" the material of the barrier, where they either travel through the bulk thereof or become bound in some way and take up vibratory motion that accords with the temperature of the material (they also release some of their kinetic energy as phonons). Even at "absolute zero" (0K), a little jitter remains, having the value of Planck's Constant divided by two pi. So I conclude that a particle has no existence unless it is in motion. Perhaps a "particle" is simply kinetic energy objectified.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Light behaving badly

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, quantum theory, biographies

I could never be a quantum mechanic. I have read and studied the subject on and off for more than forty years, and while I have become comfortable with many of the concepts, a number of things simply elude me. To approximate something Niels Bohr said, "If quantum theory doesn't seem crazy to you, you don't understand it."

The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn, by Louisa Gilder, has clarified a point or two for me, but made the subject seem crazier than ever. I wonder how crazy it would seem if I did understand!

The focus of the book is, as the title states, the continuing struggle to understand entangled quanta, a fierce, emotional, eventually nearly no-holds-barred battle between those who, following Einstein (and the "EPR" paper by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen) consider quanta to have real positions, velocities, and other "quantum states", which are partly hidden to our clumsy means of measuring them; and those who follow Bohr and consider that such quantities do not exist until they are measured. This latter is the Copenhagen Interpretation.

The question is not yet fully answered, decades after the deaths of the original knights in this battle. But as the book relates, physicists are closer to an answer since the work of John Stewart Bell and his "Bell's Inequality", the clearest statement of what must be true if "hidden variables" genuinely exist.

This is the machine that first peeled back the covers a bit to indicate that Bell's Inequality is violated. We'll see in just a minute how crazy that is. It is a pity that Bell did not live to see these results; he died at age 62.

The small mechanism at the center produces a stream of very thin Calcium gas, which a lamp illuminates to send an electron in each of many of the atoms "up" two levels, which then drops back "down", one level after another, releasing two photons as a quick cascade. The illuminating light is ultraviolet (high energy), and the "cascade" photons are green and blue, with energies that add up to that of the original UV photon. The principle of conservation of angular momentum requires that the two photons be polarized at right angles to one another.

The big tapered sections contain glass plates that gradually polarize the light before each photon is counted by a large phototube at each end. In this case that means that certain photons get through, and others are blocked. The Heisenberg Uncertainty principle means you can't measure everything you'd like to with sufficient precision on a single pair of photons, so the experimenters (Clauser and Freedman), had to gather statistics from many pairs of photons. Depending which way the polarizers were set, Bell's Inequality predicted there should be certain ratios of photons of each color detected.

The rival theory, based on the Copenhagen (Bohr's) interpretation, predicted that the ratios ought to be larger at certain angles, compared to the Bell prediction. This is how the experiment turned out! Now let us see how crazy that is.

Suppose you have a room full of people, with plenty of diversity. Pick three "variables" that can be expressed in pairs: male/female, tall/short (cutoff at, say, 1.66m for both men and women), and right/left handed. This groups everyone in the room into one of eight groups: MTR, MTl, MsR, Msl, fTR, fTl, fsR, fsl. Bell's Inequality states that, for three quantum variables, A(not b) + B(not c) is greater than or equal to A(not c). Using "x" to refer to an unknown state, and >= to mean greater than or equal to, we can state the People Inequality thus:

Msx + xTl >= Mxl, or "Short men plus all tall, left-handed people will equal or outnumber the left-handed men." It sounds obvious, perhaps, and perhaps not. But it is proven thus:

Msx = MsR + Msl
xTl = MTl + FTl
Mxl = MTl + Msl

Look carefully: The left side includes both MTl and Msl, plus two other groups, while the right side includes just MTl and Msl. Only if MsR and FTl are zero will this be equal, otherwise the left side is certain to be greater. It cannot be less.

The violation of Bell's Inequality is like this: Suppose out of 30 people, those in Msx + xTl number 12. Then you ask just the Mxl people to gather, and you count 14! How did that happen? In the case of people, somebody lied (at least two people). But for photons, that is what the experimenters claim happened. I told you it is crazy!

This is supposed to prove entanglement, that measuring one of the photons forces the other one to have a particular state when it is measured, with greater probability than if "hidden variables" were determining the result. Quite a number of experiments, with better apparatus, and lasers and so forth, have been done since the contraption above was built in 1969. The result has been verified. Not only so, entangled photons are now routinely sent opposite ways through kilometer-long light fibers, and practical use will soon be made of them to encrypt messages in ways that cannot be broken. Entanglement is also behind the attempts to produce "quantum computers", which will be able to crack any encryption technique that doesn't depend on quantum entanglement. They will also be able, perhaps, to solve other "NP complete" problems that currently could not run on any conceivable "ordinary" computer in less than millions of years.

My mind boggles. Fortunately, being boggled was a pleasant experience in this case. I confess, when I started the book, I read the author's introduction, that she had written many conversations in a semi-fictionalized way, reconstructing them from letters between the persons, and I thought I would quickly get tired of that and give up after a while. However, the writing drew me in; the author doesn't overuse such conversations, and she really does give us a flavor of the way science is carried on among brilliant, passionate advocates for various points of view.

The book, centered on the breakthrough by Bell and his followers, and on the experiments that tested his work, helps me (a little bit) to understand the total weirdness of quantum theory. I can now better accept that certain difficult ideas are so, but I still cannot say why. Then again, neither can anyone else!

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Signs of Spring 1 - early birds

kw: observations, birds

We just returned from taking a walk in a schoolyard near our home. It has two fields, and we observed the birds that came and went as we circled the track a few times. First we noticed the robins, but then my wife pointed out a compact group farther away, which we figured are blackbirds. I couldn't count the blackbirds, but robins are more steady birds, and I counted 42, then a 43d flew in and the blackbirds dashed off in a compact flock.

Robins are year-round birds here, but so seldom seen after November that many people think they are migratory. They hide out in the woods between the towns and neighborhoods in winter, and don't return to open fields until most of the snow has melted off. So they are a signal of snowmelt.

From the back side of the track we could observe the softball fields, where there were more birds of both kinds. Even far across the field we could distinguish them by their movements, and the tendency of the blackbirds to clump while the robins were more spread out. Robins also come and go singly, while blackbirds arrive and leave en masse.

My wife and I typically chat as we walk, though sometimes we are silent part of the time. This time, we had the birds to talk about, all the way 'round and 'round.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Rock Show in the First State

kw: local events, rock collecting, exhibitions, photographs

We went into Stanton, Delaware this afternoon to the Delaware Mineralogical Society's rock show, held at Delaware Tech. I belonged to the Society for a few years, because of the local clubs, they met on an evening I usually had free. I still enjoy their show. It is probably the best in the area.

I always go first to the exhibit cases. While there were many that intrigued me, I was most drawn to this one that held only varieties of Selenite, the clear crystal form of Gypsum, or Calcium Sulfate (the chemical formula is visible in the photo). This common mineral shares with Calcite (CaCO3) the distinction of having about 300 crystal forms. The collectors (two lovely women who collect together) have managed to collect about half of them. By the way, click on any of these photos to see a larger version.

This show has several single-mineral cases. There was one of Garnets and one of Tourmalines, and a few others. There were also a few cases that had specimens from each of the fifty U.S. states.

The show attracts a great number of dealers. The room was, as usual, packed to capacity. I suspect they had to turn a few dealers away. Some sell mainly minerals, some fossils, some gemstones, and some sell mineral carvings. Some are more eclectic. My wife and I were fascinated by the booth for Cherry Tree Beads, run by people who have a rather interesting concept of "bead".

As these examples show, they'll drill and string anything thicker than 4mm. Most of the "beads" seen in this photo are 30x40mm cabochons, double-sided no less! Some are smaller. They have all kinds of sizes and shapes.

I talked with them about their work. They pre-cut shapes from rock slabs, but they don't hand work them. They tumble them in bulk. They have a rapid, underwater diamond drill with a long, long bit. That is how they could afford to sell a string of ten 30x40mm jasp-agate "cabs" (strung together the long way), for about $18 to my wife. They had four large tables covered with bead strings. Amazing.

Before leaving, we went through the UV booth. I always like the fluorescent minerals. Fortunately, the booth's creators use bright enough lights that I was able to take photographs. This exposure was 1/8 sec at f/2.8, hand held but braced. As I've become older, I've become steadier!

Many of the minerals, but not all, are from the Franklin, NJ quarries and mines that have the greatest variety of fluorescent minerals in the world. I've seen a photograph taken inside one of the mines, in which an entire wall of the tunnel is brightly fluorescent.

We had only about two hours to try to see everything in the show. This is a large show for this area, but compact enough that the time we had was sufficient (I'd never try to go through the Tucson show in two hours; that one takes a couple of days).

The army that shoots its own wounded

kw: religion, spiritual practices, apologetics

I am not reviewing this document, merely commenting on its existence. It represents the current phase of an interaction that I have followed with interest for 36 years.

It is a huge risk for CRI (Christian Research Institute) to publicly release this "We Were Wrong" issue of their Journal. A brief survey of the Web shows that they have now become a target of most of the "apologetical" organizations that they are credited with leading and sometimes helping to establish.

In absolute terms, the number of Christians who even know of Witness Lee or of CRI, or of their disputes since 1973, is quite small. But in that small community of those who are doctrinally driven to fight over the Bible, this is huge.

It has been observed before that the Christian church "is the only army that shoots its own wounded". Whether it is a congregation turning on an erring member or a whole denomination turning on an "aberrant" congregation, or as in this case, a large number of organizations targeting a movement they understand very poorly, the principle is the same. Where Jesus advised an attempt to "win" another, they instead excommunicate, expunge, and sometimes physically harm those considered "contaminated" by some kind of amorphous demonic influence.

All such activities expose the deep insecurities of their proponents. Oliver Wendell Holmes, in The Autocrat at the Breakfast-Table, wrote, "I never saw Truth going around with a scarf wrapped around an aching tooth…she is able to take care of herself." (this is a rather approximate quote) So what is apologetics, anyway?

Jesus warned that his followers would be called before governors and kings to answer for their faith. He commanded them not to take forethought, but to let the Holy Spirit speak through them, when they gave their defense (apologia in Greek). Nonetheless, several large documents in early church history record well-crafted "apologies", addressed to Caesar or to a provincial governor. They dwell not at all on doctrine, which would be of little interest to a political leader. Instead, they write of the upright life of Christians, how they are typically the best of a leader's citizens.

Also, of course, the apostle Paul made his defense (apologia) before Felix, Festus, Agrippa and Caesar. These biblical and early-church examples show the principle of apologetics: when someone powerful is going to punish you for following your faith, you then defend yourself. The non-Three-Self Christians in China are in just this position today, and some have suffered long imprisonments as a result.

What kind of apologetics do we see today? Dozens of groups, some stand-alone organizations such as CRI, and some as a "ministry" within various denominations, practice "apologetics" by finding out all the things with which they disagree in the teachings or practices of other groups, then attacking them. Such activities are deeply, desperately sinful. Though there may be genuinely heretical groups "out there", the people of God are not called to attack or damage them. I include in this indictment the "Defense and Confirmation Project" carried on by some who follow Witness Lee.

I had a long conversation about these things with J. Vernon McGee a few years before he passed away. He said, "It isn't worth attacking anybody. I preach the truth as I see it." While it may be hard to teach certain things without naming names, it is necessary to try. The followers of Jesus need to examine ourselves and our motives.

Where is the Gospel to a lost humanity? Where is the rich truth preached to young believers? Where the solid meat of the Word of God to feed His people? While risky, it is a noble thing the CRI folks have done. But they need to realize, they have no biblical reason to exist. Let Christian Research be done into the best ways to gain people for Christ!

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Switching in less than a jiffy

kw: observations, science, physics, light, quantum theory

I'm reading a book about the historical development of quantum mechanics and entanglement. A review will appear in a couple more days; science histories take a while to read. I found fascinating the passionate debates engaged in by Bohr, Einstein, Schrodinger, Born, Ehrenfest, Heisenberg and others about what is really going on with quanta such as photons or electrons. Until deBroglie showed that the electron had a wave nature, it was not even considered a quantum.

As an objectivist (but not of the Rand variety), I am most compelled by things that actually happen. At root, a quantum behaves according to the kind of observation made upon it. The wave nature of photons, for example, is responsible for their ability to diffract when passing near an edge, to produce interference patterns, and to be refracted at the interface between differing media. The particle nature of photons is responsible for their ability to be detected by a photocell, a grain of silver chloride in photographic film, or even the retina of the eye.

The photons of light that form an image in your eye are focused as they enter the eye through the cornea, diffracted more or less by passing through a pupil of variable size, and focused more by the lens in the eye. For all these interactions, their wave nature prevails. Then, the energy of each photon is deposited in a dye molecule in a rod or cone cell, where it causes an electron to change its energy level. The electron then releases this energy into a nerve cell, which is now in a form that the brain can detect. The interaction with the electron depends on the photon's particle nature.

At one spot, the photon is behaving as a wave; at another less than 20mm away, it is behaving as a particle. At the speed photons travel through the eye (about 3/4 of their speed in vacuum), the "wave" interaction happens about 90 trillionths of a second before the "particle" interaction.

But that is from our point of view. What about the photon's "experience"? According to the theory of relativity, since a photon always travels at the speed of light, it experiences no passage of time; its "clock" is always stopped. From the time it is emitted, through its travels that possibly include reflections and refractions, until it is absorbed and moves one or more electrons about, the photon cannot experience anything but a timeless instant…speaking with gross anthropomorphism, of course! No matter "where" the points of emission and absorption may be, however far they may be separated, emission and absorption plus everything between are a single event.

There are several mysteries here, and though Heisenberg, Schrodinger and others developed ways of describing them mathematically, mysteries they remain. Yet the vision of every sighted creature (plus many other phenomena) depend on them, particularly on the dual nature of the photons.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Dumber than "success"

kw: local events, human nature

I visited a friend today, in the hospital. He'd first been in a coma for three weeks, and at the time nobody knew why for certain; then he began to wake up, but took another couple of weeks to regain some semblance of rationality. I saw him during that period, and he recognized me, but could not say my whole name, just one syllable.

Today he was much more clear, but very depressed. With good reason: he failed to commit suicide. Six weeks ago he went to a hotel, drank a fifth of vodka, then followed up with about 200 Benadryl tablets. That is known to induce coma, but is a very unreliable method of inducing death. Now, having spent a month in intensive care, with more weeks or months of physical therapy and psychological counseling (he is still suicidal), the main thing he has accomplished is saddling himself and his family with about a half million dollars in medical debt. Oh yeah, I didn't mention they don't have medical insurance.

I reckon there is a whole bunch of us that will have to help them out of this financial hole. But even more, we are trying to find ways to convince him that his life is valuable to us, and to his family, even if he doesn't value it so much right now. That is what I told him today. He still has a young child to raise, a kid who needs a father not a grave marker to lay flowers on. Though the grave might be a cheaper commodity, we're glad he is still with us, in spite of the high cost. (This I'm telling you, not him; I didn't mention money to him at all)

Sometimes a body feels pretty helpless. The best I could do at the moment was to sit and talk with him for a while.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Making the dark side darker

kw: book reviews, fantasy, mysteries, humor

I guess with six thousand years of literature out there, all the good titles have been used. That is the impression I get from the titles of Simon R. Green's novels. I reviewed one of his Bond takeoffs, The Spy Who Haunted Me, last August, and his two other Secret Histories novels also modify Ian Fleming titles. The titles of Green's Novels of the Nightside are more eclectic, this one being The Good, the Bad, and the Uncanny.

The genre is a fascinating mix of hardcore detective and magical fantasy. As this novel the tenth of the series, I surmise that John Taylor has appeared before, probably in all ten. Taylor is not entirely human, being the offspring of Lilith, the legendary demon who seduced Adam. Somehow, he has morphed into a magically-gifted private detective in the secret city behind/beneath London known as Nightside, where the sun never rises and the moon is always full (so werewolves never have to change back).

I suppose I am humor-challenged. It took me a quarter of the way into the book to realize that the author's tongue is into his cheek up to the elbow. It took meeting Jacqueline Hyde to clinch it. Thereafter, I found it hilarious.

With all the trappings of neo-Gothic horror, there is little horror, but plenty of action. Fortunately, even when the author is pushing the James Bond tropes the hardest, there is little of the savage sadism that Ian Fleming wallowed in. The climax, a hand-to-sword battle between Taylor and his nemesis, is told almost with dispassion, and gotten through quickly. At the close, when a package of suggestive shape arrives, I realized that Nightside novels are episodes in a cliff-hanger series. Apparently, this novel takes place within 24 hours, though that is easy to forget as the action unfolds.

Hmmm, my writing above is a bit scattered, is it not? I am definitely under the influence of Green's fantasy setting and writing style. The trouble with pure fantasy is that the author feels free to throw in a new bit of magic as needed to advance the plot. There is no need for setup, no satisfying any quibbling rules of physics or whatever. Need a magical time machine? The next fellow to show up has one in his pocket. Need to go where no sane taxi driver will take you? A friend with a rocket-bearing armored car is just a phone call away.

Need to close down a troublesome review? Say goodnight, Gracie.