Sunday, November 30, 2008

Potholders--Selected Essays--2008

by Richard Crews


From time to time I write a brief essay on a topic that interests me. Sometimes I write one every day or two; sometimes I skip a week or two. These essays are generally a few paragraphs long. My topics range from historical and scientific curiosities to philosophical or aesthetic insights.

The essays chosen for this presentation are among those I wrote toward the end of 2008. None are imaginative literary creations because, although I wrote a few of those during this period, the genre didn't particularly raise my interest when I was putting together this collection. All of them are apolitical because it is past time for Bush-bashing--he has done his damage and receded to the garbage dump of history--and it is still too early to comment on Obama's efforts.

As to my goals, a bit of explanation I wrote along with the essay "Gorilla Wars" goes as follows:

"In this piece, as with everything I write, my chief aim is to write well--to explore the power of the English language. I am always pleased to have something to say, but how to say it is my primary quest, my obsession.

"As you consider 'Gorilla Wars,' do you agree that the prose, particularly of the first paragraph, is lush with complex, inter-nested mini/micro parts like the jungle?

"Do you agree that the later prose somehow captures and conveys the triple confrontation of raw nature with drum-beating warfare and with soul-deep political unease?

"(Did you see the movie 'Instinct'?)

"I spent many hours thinking about, working on, and writing 'Gorilla Wars.' There was clearly a muse calling me who wanted something special here.

"I am pleased with it. There are some awkward elements and curious juxtapositions that, nevertheless, work to capture and convey the tone, the spirit I was looking for."

One friend after seeing this explanation said something like, "Well, maybe the style often trumps the topic, but you do tend to choose big topics, important topics." So be it.

The organizing principles for this collection are simple: I have grouped together essays that seemed in retrospect more or less related--by theme, by purpose, or by level of anger.

As to the title, "Potholders," it derives from my childhood experience in summer camp. We wove loose, six-inch-square things out of loops of colored cloth and gave them to our grandparents; my mother told me people like best something that you made yourself.

I appreciate the editorial assistance of Norman Andreassen, a very patient and knowledgeable man.

1. Undiscovered Peoples--There are still, around the world, over a hundred tribes of hunter-gatherers who have had no contact with civilization.

2. Gorilla Wars--In the Congo insurgents may kill off the few remaining mountain gorillas in order to get the government and "tree-huggers" to leave them alone to exploit the jungle timbers.

3. Culture--What makes one culture different from another, and what makes one survive?

4. Strange Brain Games--Some people with severely damaged brains have remarkable mental abilities; the rest of us have these too, but we inhibit them in order to live "normal" lives.

5. How Babies Learn--There are three principles that are often overlooked that can help us understand how babies learn.

6. Hunger amid Plenty--There is enough food in the world to go around, but the civilized nations don't have the decency to share it.

7. The World's Water Crisis--Clean fresh water is running out worldwide.

8. The Great Holocene Dying--Geologically speaking, human beings are a disaster in the making.

9. New Kinds of Chemical Threats--Modern science has developed four kinds of chemicals that are different--radically different--from anything nature has had to deal with before.

10. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch--Where do millions of tons of plastic bags go to die--slowly? A vast doldrums out in the middle of the ocean.

11. Life Has Many Moving Parts--It takes more than brilliance to be brilliant. It also takes patience, hard work, and an amazing variety of skills.

12. So Much Trouble, So Little Time--There is a wave of troubles, severe and varied troubles, about to hit us; the future is almost here.

13. U.S. Energy Problems--A puzzle with several parts.

14. Crude Payback--When oil comes out of the ground, it is already severely in debt.

15. Green Crude--Can algae be "taught" (genetically) to make petroleum?

16. Diesel from Trees--An organism has been discovered that can break down woody plants and synthesize diesel-equivalent fuel oil.

17. Fire Ice--Hold a little piece of special water-ice in your hand; it burns as it melts; in fact, it contains a tremendous amount of methane. And there is a lot of it.

18. Battery Hoax--The lead in batteries is very poisonous to the environment, so it is widely and efficiently recycled, right? Legally, yes. In fact, no.

19. A Unique Alien Ecosystem--Here's a species that lives alone. It doesn't need any other species to survive.

20. A Natural Nuclear Reactor--A couple of billion years ago a peculiar deposit of uranium, sandstone, and water in Gabon, Africa went critical.

21. The China Problem--China is rising, and confronting the West with some thorny issues--ecologically, economically, and culturally.

22. Immigration Dilemma--The U.S. was built by immigrants; must we now shut them out?

23. Immigration Strategies--Here are some perspectives and principles for dealing with the immigration problem.

24. Incarceration Milestone--The U.S. is the "land of the jailed"; more so even than Russia, China, or any other nation.

25. The Prison Door--Even after someone is released from prison, they must serve the rest of their lives in another socio-cultural trap.

26. Rehabilitation Plan--What can we do to reclaim the millions of lives lost to crime and punishment?

27. Reality--Reality as revealed by modern science is not what you see, or think, or "know" it is.

28. The "Prime Mover" Conundrum--Who made God's God's God? Or maybe our intellects are coming at this question from the wrong direction.

29. Why Are We Here (Cosmically)?--The "answer" (or problems finding an answer) may surprise you.

Your feedback, comments, and corrections are welcome.
My email address is

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Undiscovered Peoples

On August 29, 1911, a filthy, emaciated, half-naked wild man was found huddling in the corner of a cattleman's corral near Oroville, California. He was the last surviving Yahi--the last of the Yana people. He had grown up hiding in the mountainous forests of the upper Feather River with a dwindling band of friends and family, carved down again and again by the rifles of horseback-riding miners and ranchers--a score, a dozen, a few at a time--until there were just three. Then when his mother and sister were killed, he was alone. He spent several years hunting, fishing, hiding in the mountain forests--seeing no one (no other human being even spoke his language)--awaiting, but eluding, death from the savage white men who encroached ever closer, year by year, on his wild sanctuary. He believed--with good reason--that he was the last and only civilized human being on Earth.

Finally in August, 1911, harried and starving, near death, he heroically faced up to his fate, prepared to die, and walked out of his world and into the clutches of the insane and savage half-humans who hated him. But good fortune--of a sort--was with him. He was "adopted" by an anthropologist; given a "home" in a corner of a museum in Berkeley. He learned a lot of English and spent his days entertaining museum visitors by sitting in an "authentic" Indian village site and carving "authentic" arrow heads. He came to be called "Ishi" which means only "man" in his native language--he was forbidden by his culture and customs from ever pronouncing his own real name. He died after five years--in 1916--of tuberculosis, one of the many white-man's diseases (like measles, small pox, and influenza) that have regularly decimated or annihilated aboriginal populations who carry in their genes no resistance to them.

As the small circle of anthropologists and their friends got to know him, Ishi turned out to be a remarkable man--a deeply intuitive philosopher, a patient teacher; a man who loved animals and children and had great knowledge of and respect for the ways of nature. When he died--his deep and bloody tuberculous cough had wracked his body down to under 90 pounds--he looked up peacefully from his hospital bed at the small group of friends who had gathered to be with him, and he said simply, "It is time. I go; you stay."

Ishi is believed to have been the last isolated (or "uncontacted") aborigine in North America. But there are, even today, some 200 known tribes around the world--perhaps several thousand individuals--living in small cultural groups totally cut off from the civilized world, They are known from aerial photographs, from reports of indigenous neighbors, and from occasional encounters (often violent) with outside groups. Most are in the Amazon River jungles of Brazil and of bordering Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador. Some are in comparably deep jungles of Bolivia, Venezuela, and Paraguay. Several in the lush tropical rain forests of New Guinea. A few elsewhere.

They are in constant threat both from invading, exploiting loggers and miners, oil-field developers, and poachers-hunters, but also from well-meaning tourists, even anthropologists. In addition to losing their lands to logging, road building, and farming, they have no resistance to diseases that are common in European-derived and long-exposed cultures--they have not spent centuries dying from and gradually developing genetic immunities to measles, small pox, tuberculosis, or even the common cold. When visitors inadvertently bring exposure to these diseases, native populations die off in hordes--a 50% death rate is not uncommon; 90% or even total annihilation is well known.

Several countries such as Brazil have set aside wild and uncivilized areas as "parks" or "reservations" for uncontacted peoples, areas where loggers, miners, and hunters are forbidden to go. Anthropologists have reluctantly learned to keep their distance; and tourism is discouraged both by laws and by the wildness of the land.

But the threats continue. And just as polar bears, great apes, and jungle cats--along with thousands of lesser species--are gradually being exterminated, so we civilized humans are losing the diversity of human languages and cultures with which the Earth was once blessed.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Gorilla Wars

Deep in the darkest reaches of mountainous jungles in central Africa, within the vast country once known as Zaire--now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (as large as the entire United States east of the Mississippi)--lies a savage, tropical land of giant trees and tangled undergrowth; a complex, inter-nested ecosystem of a million species of plants and stinging, biting, crawling insects; of predators and prey, small and large; of species known and many yet unknown to science. Within those jungles are set apart 3,000 square miles for the Virunga National Park, home--among many rare and endangered species--of several hundred mountain gorillas, nearly half of the surviving members of this dying species, so close to humans that we share nearly 98% of the same DNA, yet so alien, so strange to us that we instinctively fear them, these gentle giants and their savage, jungle ways.

Mountain gorillas are a critically endangered species, but they are "protected" in that park--their native homeland is guarded and patrolled by some 50 forest rangers who try to keep out poachers seeking "bush meat" and loggers who want to fell the giant trees to traffic in charcoal that provides fuel and water-purifying chemicals to Rwanda, Uganda, and other nearby African nations.

But a civil war also rages in the Congo: over five million people have been killed in the past ten years--recently nearly 50,000 each month. And the rebels want to control the lucrative and illegal charcoal trade. They are willing to kill to do so--some 120 forest rangers have died in the past ten years. The rebels are willing to kill--not just humans, not just the rangers, but in addition, recently, they have hit on another plan: they believe that if they exterminate the mountain gorillas, the forest rangers will have no reason to risk their lives limiting the rebels' activities; they will leave, and with them the government troops they summon when battles for areas of the park, and the trees, rage.

This savage genocide is proceeding. Bands of gorillas have been rounded up and executed. The civilized world--humanity at large--has no power to stop it. Soon mountain gorillas--some of Homo sapiens' nearest relatives--will be gone. And we humans will be a little more alone in the Universe.


In this piece as with everything I write, my chief aim is to write well--to explore the power of the English language. I am always pleased to have something to say, but how to say it is my major quest, my obsession.

Do you agree that the prose, particularly of the first paragraph, is lush with complex, inter-nested mini/micro parts like the jungle?

Do you agree that the later prose somehow captures and conveys the
triple confrontation of raw nature with drum-beating warfare and with soul-deep political unease?

(Did you see the movie "Instinct"?)

I spent many hours thinking about, working on, and writing this piece. There was clearly a muse calling who wanted something special here.

I am pleased with it. There are some awkward elements and curious juxtapositions that, nevertheless, work to capture and convey the tone, the spirit I was looking for.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


The study of human beings and their associations and accomplishments is truly a vast and many-faceted undertaking. After the great historian, Will Durant, and his graduate student, later wife, Ariel, had spent several decades writing eleven monumental volumes of The Story of Civilization, they wrote a 100-page conclusion they titled The Lessons of History. The introductory chapter of Lessons concludes, "Since a man is a moment in astronomic time; a transient guest of the earth; a spore of his species; a scion of his race; a composite of body, character, and mind; a member of a family and a community; a believer or doubter of a faith; a unit in an economy; perhaps a citizen in a state or a soldier in an army; we may ask under the corresponding headings--astronomy, geology, geography, biology, ethnology, psychology, morality, religion, economics, politics, and war--what history has to say about the nature, conduct, and prospects of man. It is a precarious enterprise; only a fool would try to compress a hundred centuries into a hundred pages of hazardous conclusions. We proceed."

The mysterious concept "culture" tries to capture the essential characteristics of human groupings and their accomplishments. The definition of "culture" I like best is, "the interlocking network of language, beliefs, and practices of a group of people, and the child-rearing practices that perpetuate these."

There have been tens of thousands of identifiably different cultures on earth. There are today certainly several thousand. A few dozen are hidden away in the Amazon rain forests or jungles of New Guinea, isolated from and bewildered by the trails of jet airplanes they see crossing the sky high overhead and the loggers and poachers who infringe on the margins of their worlds. Many others interact with one another, and are even proprietors and custodians of the great machines and ideas and interconnections we think of as "the modern world."

But each of the thousands of cultures is unique--different from all the others--and generally considers itself the "best" or "only" way to live. "We are right and they are wrong" is an almost universal mantra. Eric Berne said that Western European-American culture is the only cultural grouping, of the hundreds he had studied, that holds "cultural relativism" as a core cultural value. In other words, ours is the only culture that believes, as one of its root values, that alien cultures have valid points of view.

Were you surprised to see "child-rearing practices" as part of that very short, tight (hence incomplete) definition of "culture" that I chose? And yet a group of people who cannot teach their children to teach their children to teach their children...their core language, beliefs, and practices, cannot endure--cannot pass the test of time--the test of making their own unique history.

So we come to the central problem: trying to uncover and refine our child-rearing practices.

It is obvious that adults are different from one another in many ways, including their emotional reactions. Confronted with a sudden and unusual event, one adult will feel frightened, another amused, another curious, another angry, and others will experience many other reactions. There are certain common elements to the biological startle reaction--focused attention, rising blood pressure and racing heart, etc. But it is axiomatic that a lot of learning--including early childhood learning--goes into modifying the reaction. Each culture--each set of child-rearing practices--sculpts the body's startle reactions toward different cultural expectations. Similarly, each sculpts every other biological process and reaction toward the cultural mold.

One further complication. As children grow, they change radically in their openness to learning certain things. A child, for example, who has not learned--because of social isolation, deafness, or other physical or emotional disability--to speak a native language by the age of five, will never be able to learn any language with fluency--native language, foreign language, sign language, or any other. A child's brain seems to awaken to learning sound groupings, symbols, and meanings and if the child is not stimulated to learn the crucial language steps at the crucial times in development, the child's brain can never be awakened to those possibilities and connections again. The same is true for various steps in manipulation of numbers, in music, and in many other sensory-motor skill sets.

Human cultures vary widely. But they all depend on teaching their children to become adults in the culture's mold. This is complicated by the fact that children's learning abilities come and go as they grow. How these variables interact is at the essence of who we are as individuals, and what we can become as a human species.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Strange Brain Games

There are numerous examples of curious and wonderful mental abilities that seem to be unleashed in damaged brains. Perhaps the most famous of these is the memory abilities of Kim Peek, the man on whom the movie "Rainman" was based. Kim was born without a corpus callosum which is the main trunk of nerves connecting the left and right brain hemispheres. He is severely disabled--although he can walk and talk, he cannot dress himself or take care of himself in some very basic ways. But his feats of memorization are amazing. He can read a page of text and remember it, word for word, years later. He has memorized several thousand books, maps, telephone directories, etc. He can, for example, respond, within a few seconds, with block by block directions for driving from an obscure street address in one of some 200 U.S. cities to another obscure street address in a distant city. He can report the succession of Catholic popes over the past 2000 years, from St. Peter to the present day, giving their names, their dates, and historical information about them; similarly, for all the kings of England and all the presidents of the U.S. (including their vice presidents and the members of their cabinets).

Kim is not a so-called "idiot savant" since he has a known brain disfigurement. The term "idiot savant" was historically applied to severely mentally and emotionally disturbed individuals who appeared to have normal brains from a neuroanatomical standpoint. These people are now generally diagnosed as "autistic"; they are cared for by their families or in mental institutions around the world. Most autistic patients do not have special mental abilities--they are not "savants." But some can do elaborate mathematical calculations in their heads, remember dates or zodiacal positions covering centuries, and perform other amazing mental abilities.

Some people who are not significantly emotionally or socially disabled can perform equally amazing mental feats. One young man, while attending college, displayed his memorization of 22,500 decimal places of the numerical constant pi. (Pi is the Greek letter used to refer to the ratio of a circle's diameter to its circumference. The digits of pi extend indefinitely without repeating; they have been calculated by computer to several billion decimal places. Pi begins 3.14159265....) Or consider the young college man who could calculate irrational numbers in his head to approximately 100 decimal places. (Irrational numbers are numbers, such as pi or the square root of two, that cannot be written as the ratio between two integers. Their decimal digits extend indefinitely without repeating themselves. There is an infinite number of irrational numbers. A hand calculator will commonly calculate irrational numbers to 10 decimal places; a larger, lab calculator may be able to go to 20 or 30 decimal places. It is an extraordinary feat to calculate an irrational number to 100 decimal places even with the largest electronic computer.)

Another young man, in this case severely emotionally and mentally disabled, can be flown a single time over a large city and proceed to draw from memory a detailed picture of the city from a sky view, including the winding streets, locations and appearances of buildings, down to such details as the size and locations of trees and roof-top ventilators: literally hundreds of thousands of precise details.

We must assume that each of our brains is capable of such feats, but that these abilities have been inhibited in order to provide for the panorama of normal brain functions. One woman reported that she was "plagued" by the ability to remember every minute of every day of her life since she was a young child. This ability was, for her, a terrible burden and impediment to normal functioning.

How does the brain remember? One leading theory says that as an event is first perceived, the visual, auditory, and other inputs from that perception trigger the release of certain transmitter hormones between a few of the billions of nerve-cell branches in our brains. The new nerve-cell connections that are formed (in a pattern reflecting the original perceptions) may be weak (and soon forgotten) or strong (and remembered). They may be reinforced by repeating the same or similar perceptions (learned). The original event can be "remembered" by reawakening, through internal or external stimulation, the pattern of neuronal connections that was formed by the original perceptions.

What about memory, that is, conscious recall? How and when these neuronal patterns that recreate the original events are allowed into consciousness is another matter altogether. It is the job of another part of the brain to sort through and select among restimulated internal neuronal patterns, and allow into consciousness only those that are needed and can be productively worked on in consciousness by our higher, most complicated and sophisticated abstracting and connecting tools that reside there.

Thus many complex mental activities and would-be memories are censored from our conscious review so that we can proceed in an orderly and focused way along an otherwise baffling life path.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

How Babies Learn

We all know a lot about learning from our own personal experiences--that repetition helps; so does an emotional charge (for example, we are more likely to remember something that is charged with love or anger). Memory experts tell us that associating something with visual images, especially with movement, or with amusing, titillating, or even absurd ideas helps strengthen memories. Bards through the ages have known that rhyme and rhythm help too, as when a story is made into a poem or song. But there are three important principles that are not widely known that can help us understand how babies learn. These are (1) awakening and sunsetting, (2) selective suppression, and (3) extensional abstracting.

First, awakening and sunsetting. As a young brain develops, different areas become actively available and then fade again. It is known, for example, that a young human brain that is not exposed to language during the first five years of life (perhaps because of severe social or emotional deprivation or physical disability) will never learn any language fluently--not a "native" language, nor sign language, nor any language. But if the crucial symbol association and grammar areas of the brain are stimulated and awakened in those first few years of life when they become available, the skills can be transferred (or "translated") to other languages later. There are similar brain-awakenings for skills in mathematics, music, even aspects of athletic balance, and probably for a thousand other subtle perceptual-motor skills that we have not yet identified and studied closely.

An important point to remember is that if these various brain areas are not "awakened" during the key periods when they become developmentally available, they may "sunset" and never be as flexibly and readily available again. It is also important to note that as they awaken, they summon a child's interest and attention. A child instinctively wants to explore and practice skill sets that are awakening and becoming available for stimulation and for learning experiences.

What does this first, often-forgotten principle tell us about teaching and learning (and parenting) young children? Primarily, that a child should have access to a widely varied perceptual-motor environment. And also, that every adult should be flexible and encouraging in responding to a child's interests, no matter how pointless and irrelevant they may appear to the adult's older, supposedly wiser, but in fact culturally stifled vision. A child's developing interests derive from awakening brain areas that, if ignored or suppressed, may not rise again.

Second, selective suppression of perceptual and cognitive skills. We all know that normal, healthy childhood development involves learning a parade of information and skills--from smiling and walking to physically manipulating objects with one's hands and the cognitive skills for manipulating mental objects with one's mind. But we often do not appreciate that normal, healthy childhood development depends on learning "not-doing" of certain functions, as well as on "doing" of others. For example, some explanatory paradigms suggest that autism (which characteristically has significant social and emotional disability) is due to brain overload and the inability of the individual to sort out or filter out distracting and unwanted input. (See the essay titled "Strange Brain Games" in this collection.) Furthermore, decades of studies on minimal cerebral dysfunction and hyperactive learning disorders have demonstrated that a child's learning is often strengthened and focused by reducing environmental distractions, in other words by supporting the child's selective suppression abilities.

In a parallel way, babies must often learn to group certain perceptions together, and to ignore certain distinctions. For example, before they learn to speak words or to organize words into phrases and sentences, babies learn to babble in their native languages. A Chinese or German or French baby babbles to practice making the phonemes (the sound units) of the language the baby hears. And this includes selectively suppressing certain perceptual distinctions. A person whose native language was Mandarin, for example, has learned not to discriminate between the "r" and "l" sounds of English--they simply are not heard as different sounds--the child has learned to selectively suppress making this perceptual distinction and to hear these closely related sounds as the same sound. Similarly, the glottal fricatives that are carefully distinguished from one another in German and the Scandinavian languages all sound the same to a native English speaker. For another example, Germans cannot distinguish the "d" sound from the "th" sound of English, whereas native English speakers cannot pronounce German umlauted vowels or their French equivalents.

Clearly, selective suppression is a two-edged sword. While it can reduce confusion and facilitate learning and understanding in the early years, it can also persist and interfere with other learning later on. As a child gets older and learns an extended vocabulary and a grasp of syntax, the child learns to use context more than precise auditory discrimination to determine meaning. When a young adult wants to learn a foreign language, the selective suppression, once learned (and once useful) persists as a learned inability to make certain auditory discriminations.

What does this tell us about babies' early learning? For one thing, babies should be exposed to a variety of different languages so that they do not learn to suppress the auditory discriminations that will limit them to their native language later on. But more generally, their perceptual experiences should be widely varied, in fact more varied than the cultural biases of their parents would customarily encourage.

Third, extensional abstracting. Language learning naturally occurs extensionally, that is, by building up verbal categories by trial and error. For example, a baby normally learns the definition of the verbal category "cow" through an interactive process with an adult that could be characterized, "that's a cow," "that's not a cow," that's a cow," "that's not a cow," etc. But in many cultures (such as ours), after the age of five or six this normal, physiologically determined style of learning is suppressed in favor of culturally imposed generic-specific definition patterns. By the second or third grade, the child has learned that the verbal category "cow" should be defined by the generic-specific method--one learns to "define" things ONLY one way, by naming the general category and describing the specific case. For example, a "cow" might be defined, by this approach, as an "animal" (general category) that "gives milk" (specific characteristic).

For another example of the difference between extensional and generic-specific defining, a five year old knows through extensional learning experiences that a chihuahua, a poodle, and a Saint Bernard are all "dogs" but that a pig and a rabbit are not. But defining "dog" by the generic-specific method (as our society requires of anyone over the age of about five) is a dauntingly difficult task. Defining extensionally comes naturally and fits with the way the brain works. On the other hand, defining by the generic-specific method is culturally imposed and does not fit well with the brain's equipment.

For a final example of the advantage (and power) of extensional definitions, I remember being astonished and pleased to discover that my five year old son had a firm and accurate grasp of the verbal category "outfit." As we drove along, he could confidently and correctly say, "that person is wearing an outfit--that person is not." He had learned the subtle and elusive definition of the verbal category "outfit" extensionally--but no generic-specific definition could capture it.

In a similar way, by the time we of Indo-European language stocks (such as English) are adults and are firmly indoctrinated into our culture's mental perspectives, we are incapable of "understanding" or intuitively grasping quantum mechanics. Although this mathematically and scientifically established way of looking at the tiny world of atoms and their interactions is widely accepted in scientific circles, intuitively it seems very strange and impossible. Linguists, particularly of the Whorfian school, point out that people indoctrinated as children into some other language stocks (such as Hebrew and Hopi) are far better cognitively equipped to "grasp" quantum mechanics.

Helping babies learn is a subtle and challenging undertaking. It is made somewhat easier and more understandable if we keep these three, little-appreciated principles in mind--awakening and sunsetting, sellective suppression, and extensional abstraction.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Hunger amid Plenty

Every year tens of millions die of starvation. Most of these are children.

Some one billion people live in perpetual hunger--many on the brink of starvation. And yet, as Buckminster Fuller pointed out in 1970, there is enough food in the world to go around--the problem is not in gross amounts of foodstock supplies, but in the economics of distribution. This opinion has be reconfirmed by officials of the World Health Organization as recently as within the past two years.

Tens of millions of people die each year of starvation or diseases worsened by malnutrition. Yet in the wake of the "Green Revolution" initiated by Norman Borlaug in Mexico in the late 1940s, life-sustaining grains can be produced in adequate harvests. Thanks to Borlaug's work, Mexico became a net exporter of wheat in 1963, and Pakistan and India nearly doubled their production of wheat between 1965 and 1970.

We are, in late 2008, in the midst of a global food crisis. Between the start of 2006 and 2008, the average world prices of rice, wheat, corn, soybeans, milk, and meat more than doubled. There have been food riots in more than 20 countries around the world.

This has been attributed to many factors:

(1) Catastrophic weather and poor harvests around the world. In Australia--the extended drought in one of the largest global producers of food grains has caused a 98% drop in rice production in widespread areas and wheat production has fallen from 25 million tons to 10 million tons annually. In Myanmar (Burma)--this country was expected to export 600,000 tons of rice in 2008, but the devastating cyclone in May 2008 has made it a net importer. In East Africa--the rise of a virulent strain of stem rust decimated the grain harvests. Worldwide--water depletion and pollution have struck down harvests around the world and rendered millions of acres of arable land unproductive.

(2) Rising oil prices have dramatically raised the costs of fertilizers, food transport, and industrial agriculture in general (factory-like production of eggs, milk, and meat).

(3) Increasing demand for more varied diets (especially meat) across the vast, expanding middle-class populations of China and India. (One pound of beef requires seven pounds of feed grain.)

(4) The diversion of food grains, particularly corn, into the production of biofuels. (Approximately 100 million tons of grain per year are now being diverted into fuel.)

(5) A complex network of economic factors from trade barriers and agricultural price supports to commodity market speculation and the diversion of capital into foodstuffs due to low interest rates.

But the fundamental fact remains: there is enough food produced in the world so that every human being could be adequately nourished if nations had the wisdom and humanity--and the political will--to treat food as a human right, not a business commodity; if farming were rescued from its vulnerability to consolidated financial and political power off the farm.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The World's Water Crisis

The clean, fresh-water resources of the Earth are not boundless. Nevertheless, they might be sufficient for human needs but for their natural (unaccommodating) distribution and for competing uses.

Fresh water is partitioned into four planetary areas: surface waters, snow and ice, underground aquifers, and the atmosphere. The quantity of water in each of these partitions is vast; each contains thousands of cubic miles of fresh water.* And, with significant limitations of rate and energy requirements, water moves back and forth among them--the "hydrologic cycle." For example, surface waters evaporate into the atmosphere. From there, rain (and sleet and snow) return purified water to the surface of the Earth. Rain runs off into rivers and lakes, or seeps into the ground to replenish aquifers (although some major aquifers are deep and run very slowly, so they are largely "fossil water"; and some are being drained by drilled wells faster than their supplies are replenished). Finally, snow and ice may be melted in the spring, or trapped for years--even millions of years--in glaciers and polar ice caps.

Vast as these fresh water resources are, they are only about 1/40 of the volume of the oceans. However, the salt water of the oceans cannot be used for our metabolic purposes. The salt renders it poisonous to drink or to use for land irrigation. Granted, sea life, both animal and plant, has energy-consuming processes that are strong enough and sharply dedicated enough so that briny water can provide for their metabolic needs. But humans and almost all other land creatures (both animals and plants) cannot perform this chemical magic. We would die in a few days if we did not have access to the renewal of fresh water.

The problem for many human beings is not having adequate access to clean fresh water, both for drinking (and cooking), and for hygiene and sanitation. For children under the age of five, waterborne diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide; at any given time, half of the hospital beds in the world are occupied by patients with waterborne diseases; in fact, 88% of all cases of disease are caused by unsafe drinking water, inadequate sanitation, or poor hygiene. Roughly 1.1 billion people (of the world's population of 6 billion) do not have access to safe drinking water; some 2.6 billion lack adequate clean water for sanitation.

In the past hundred years humanity has become so numerous that natural hydrologic-cycle supplies are now insufficient for our needs. Even with massive purification and reclammation projects (so that, for example, upstream city sewers or farm runoff do not contaminate downstream drinking water), humanity is frankly living waterwise beyond its means. Prehistoric aquifers are being drained--where once a well 10 or 15 feet deep could reach fresh, pure water, now one may need to drill 100 feet or more to reach the aquifer water table. The vast Ogallala Aquifer underlying much of eight U.S. states and serving some 27% of land irrigation in the U.S. is being depleted at the rate of 12 cubic miles of water per year; experts estimate that it will run dry in as little as 25 years.

There are some "fixes" that work. The vast quantities of water that are sprayed on agricultural crops could be used much more efficiently; spraying water onto a field loses as much as 90% of the water to evaporation and runoff whereas drip or seep irrigation can capture 75% of the water for the plants' use. As to ocean water supplies, with enormous energy expenditure (perhaps available from nuclear power sources, ocean thermal energy conversion, or even wind, tide, solar, or geothermal sources) significant quantities of ocean water could be desalinated for human use.

On the other hand, there are some "fixes" that do not work well. For example, dams distort ecological patterns (such as fish migrations) and expose surface water areas to increased evaporation. For another example, an enormous project of the World Bank to introduce tube wells into parched and water-contaminated areas of Bangladesh tapped, inadvertantly, into arsenic-laden aquifers; millions of people in Bangladesh now suffer from acute and chronic arsenic poisoning (and have very limited, grossly inadequate, health resources available to them).**

Humanity has overrun the Earth's fresh water resources, and the problems are getting worse year by year. If civilized human life is to continue on this planet, dramatic actions are urgently needed, both scientific and engineering progress, and political and social changes tantamount to sociocultural revolutions affecting billions.

* Note on partition volumes
About 3,000 cubic miles of water (fresh, of course) is in the atmosphere (as vapor) at any one time
There is about 30,000 cubic miles of surface freshwater on the Earth in lakes and rivers
There is about 3,000,000 cubic miles of freshwater in the world's underground aquifers
And ice caps and glaciers add about 7,000,000 cubic miles more.
The total volume of the oceans is about 32,500,000 cubic miles (this is salt water, of course).

** Update on arsenic in Bangladesh water (from Scientific American, November, 2009)

In 2002 M.I.T. researchers determined that microbes digesting organic carbon were freeing that trapped arsenic. But where did the carbon come from and how was the arsenic getting into the water supply? The M.I.T. team now thinks they have the answers, which they report in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Using a six-square-mile test plot, they found that the organic carbon comes from shallow ponds that were dug to provide soil for flood protection. The carbon compounds sink in the pondwater and seep underground where bacteria digest them, setting up the perfect chemical conditions to free up the soil’s arsenic. Groundwater flow then brings the arsenic-rich water to the wells.

Future wells dug deep enough, to the low-arsenic part of the aquifer, could help. Rice fields filter arsenic from the water, so wells under those fields could also be part of an answer to a problem affecting millions of Bangladeshis.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Great Holocene Dying

The Universe popped into being with the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago (we can round that off to 14,000,000,000 years--I've spelled that out with 9 zeros to help you keep track; there are some pretty mind-numbing time comparisons coming up in the next few paragraphs).

About 5 billion years ago the Earth was born. Then life appeared on Earth about 4 billion years ago. (We're still talking in 9-zero numbers here.)

It took a couple of billion years for life to get very diverse, that is, to evolve into millions of species to fill ever smaller and more varied ecological niches. But life on Earth had its ups and downs. Every few million years some ecological catastrophe would wipe out vast numbers of the species that had evolved. Sometimes these were due to massive volcanic eruptions that filled the atmosphere with soot and noxious gases. Sometimes these widespread extinctions were associated with rising or falling of the oceans. And at least once a giant asteroid smashed into the Earth, spewing clouds of fumes and particles that blocked out the Sun.

The most staggering of these mass extinctions is called "The Great Dying" (or the "Permian-Triassic extinction event"). It occurred 251 million years ago (251,000,000 years--with 6 zeros--that's about 1/20th the age of the Earth, in other words quite recently in Earth-age terms). Some 96% of all marine species and an estimated 70% of land species (including plants, insects, and vertebrate animals) were wiped out. Although this is called an "event," it wasn't exactly sudden. It actually occurred over several million years--only a scientist steeped in zeros like a geologist could think of it as an "event."

There have been quite a number of extinction events, some widespread (even global), as the hundreds of millions of years of life on Earth rolled by. But there are six in addition to the "Great Dying" that were so catastrophic as to take one's (or most of life's) breath away. The one 65 million years ago (65,000,000 years; the "Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event") that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs killed off about 75% of all species on the planet. Other major extinction events occurred--
205,000,000 years ago--the "Triassic-Jurassic extinction event"
but 46,000,000 years earlier
251,000.000 years ago--the "Permian-Triassic extinction event"
and 109,000,000 years earlier than that
360,000,000 to 375,000,000 years ago--the "Late Devonian extinction event"
and 65,000,000 years before that (give or take a few million years)
440,000,000 to 450,000,000 years ago--the "Ordovician-Silurian extinction event" (which was actually two events)
and barely 38,000,000 years before that
488,000,000 years ago--the "Cambrian-Ordovician extinction event."

Again, although these are called "events," most actually took place over millions of years.

What about the present? Starting about 100,000 years ago when the incursion of humans began to be a significant worldwide ecological factor, a major evolutionary catastrophe called the "Holocene extinction event" got under way. This has not been developing for millions of years like most of the extinction events referred to above. A hundred thousand years is ONE TENTH of a million years--barely the twinkling of a geological eye. Yet in that brief time there have been extensive species extinctions comparable to those that occurred over millions of years at the time of The Great Dying.

And this extinction process is accelerating. It has been estimated that the present rate of species extinction is 100 to 1,000 TIMES the normal, background biological rate. Scientist speculate that at the current rate approximately one half of the species now alive on Earth will become extinct within the next 100 years (that's not one thousand years--not one million years as with prior major extinction events).

There have been four main causes for this.

First, widespread agriculture and the attendant deforestation, desertification, and general habitat simplification and destruction.

Second, pollution of the atmosphere, oceans, and land with billions of tons of diverse bioactive chemicals--fertilizers, cattle excrement, pesticides, solvents, detergents, etc.

Third, land use by exploding populations of humans for cities, but also for suburban and rural habitations, and for recreational and industrial purposes.

Fourth, hunting and fishing, often with clever technologies (such as the spear or arrow or gun) and with relentless thoroughness.

The major extinctions of millennia gone by often took millions of years to devolve. Ours, the Great Holocene Dying, is killing off comparable catastrophic percentages of living species, but this time barely in the twinkling of a geologic eye.

Our species, Homo sapiens, is also sure to go extinct--soon, in geologic terms. And one can imagine the tired old Earth heaving a sigh of nostalgia, but also of relief, and going back to plodding through its millennia at a more normal geologic pace.

Friday, November 21, 2008

New Kinds of Chemical Threats

There are four kinds of chemical materials, new to nature--that is to say, new to our bodies and new to the broader environment--that are being produced in increasing volume and complexity in our modern world.

(1) radioactive materials
(2) complex bio-active chemicals
(3) neogenetic effectors
(4) nanoparticulates

The benefits of these new kinds of chemicals are sought aggressively by scientific experiment and economic development. But their dangers, perhaps short-term but especially long-term, are rarely studied or even considered seriously.

(1) Radioactive materials: These emerged on the scene about a hundred years ago. Wilhelm Roentgen and Marie Curie, towering pioneers in the early study of radioactivity, were ultimately victims of its long-term effects: Roentgen, the discoverer of X-rays, died of intestinal cancer; Marie Curie, winner of two Nobel Prizes for pioneering work on radioactive chemicals, died of aplastic anemia caused by her exposure to radioactivity. And there have been many others. Atomic bombs were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki for their destructive explosive effects, but much of the terrible pain and tragedy they caused were due to their radioactivity. Nuclear power plants provide inexpensive, non-carbon-polluting electricity for millions, but not without three severe problems: the threat of melt-down disasters (like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island), the danger of catastrophically explosive materials falling into enemy or terrorist hands, and the mountains of extremely toxic radioactive wastes that accumulate year after year.

(2) Complex bio-active chemicals: Over the past few decades pesticides, insecticides, and exfoliants, medicines and industrial (and household) chemicals have had beneficial effects on modern life too numerous and varied to list. But in 1962 Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a book that poignantly reported the dying off of songbirds due to the widespread use of the pesticide DDT. This launched the environmental movement and ongoing struggles to reclaim myriad wonders of nature from the careless and thoughtless enthusiasm of the scientific, agricultural, and business communities. The side effects of the complex bio-active chemicals that have been poured into the environment--the cancers caused, the ecosystems destroyed, the patterns of life inadvertently but devastatingly altered--have been legion.

(3) Neogenetic effectors: Although Gregor Mendel discovered the recombinant power of genetics some 150 years ago, the significance of his work was not realized until the early 20th century. As the 20th century progressed, increasing knowledge and technological developments brought the power of genetic manipulation into widespread use. Manipulating the genes of wheat and corn has saved a billion people from starvation and has turned on their heads the economies of Mexico, India, and Pakistan. Farm animals and field crops are regularly made astonishingly more productive by adjusting their genes. Genetic manipulations of disease organisms and their vectors have revolutionized medicine. Many fields of business and industry have been similarly affected. But stung by the realization of damages that resulted from bio-active chemicals, the environmental movement has raised precautionary alarms, which may already be too late for the tide of neogenetic effectors is already upon us.

(4) Nanoparticulates: The most recent and least publicized of these four mighty new breeds of chemicals, nanoparticles have emerged from scientific laboratories to spread across the cultural landscape only in the past couple of decades. The fundamental discoveries of the physical properties of these tiny particles--much smaller than the thickness of a human hair but larger than an atom or molecule--have been mind-boggling. Opaque copper becomes transparent; inert platinum becomes a potent chemical catalyst; aluminum, the symbol of chemical resistance and stability, becomes combustible, even explosive; gold becomes a liquid at room temperature; and silicon, one of industry's stalwart insulators, becomes electrically conductive. But some nanoparticulates are already known to have a dark side. Carbon nanotubes seem to do asbestos-like damage to the lungs. Nanoparticulate silver is a potent antibacterial, potentially devastating when it leaks out into the broader environment. In fact, all of these novel and potent nanomaterials bear wary watching.

Some alarms have been raised but more--much more--active vigilance needs to be mounted as these new kinds of chemical threats invade our world.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Plastics, besting ancient Gaul, are divided into far more than three parts. There are the acrylics, the polyesters, the silicones, the polyurethanes, and the halogenated plastics to name a few of the major categories. Plastics are made into cups, bags, fabrics, cords, paints, and an infinitude of little parts for computers, tools, factory machines, and other wonders of the modern world. There are millions of tons of various plastics made each year but also--and here, as the Bard says, is the rub--millions of tons are discarded each year. Some 95% of all plastics that are manufactured wind up in garbage dumps where some of them take as long as decades, even centuries, to decompose.

There are some few plastics that are designed to be "biodegradable" which means they can be broken down by enzymes of living organisms. Such plastics decompose in a matter of days. And some plastics, although not biodegradable, are far more recyclable and reusable than others. Both of these factors--biodegradability and recyclability--are very important to consider as the modern world faces this terrible onslaught of sturdy, toxic trash.

My attention this morning is on a recently discovered aquatic garbage dump known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" or or the "Pacific Trash Vortex." Located in the little-passaged Northern Pacific Ocean doldrums, it is vast, estimated at half a million to ten million square miles in extent. Because of the long, slow, clockwise ocean circulation in this region and the centripetal tendencies in such a vortex, the GPGP draws in waste material from Japan and from the west coast of North America and gradually (over one to five years) deposits it in the central doldrums.

The vast majority of the trash that gathers in the GPGP is plastics. The concentration of plastics reaches, in some areas, one million pieces per square mile. Specific studies have found 3.34 pieces (with an average mass of 5.1 mg) per square meter. This comes to a total (calculator don't fail me now!) of at least 75 million tons of plastic garbage afloat there.

Moreover, this enormous mass--which is increasing year by year--has three particularly diabolical characteristics:
(1) it generally degrades by breaking down into smaller and smaller plastic particles
(2) it is concentrated in the top, most sunlit and biologically active surface layer of the ocean
(3) and--though it closely resembles (and often outnumbers) zooplankton, the main food source for fish and aquatic birds and mammals that inhabit the ecosystem--it is utterly indigestible.

There are five major gyres or circular ocean currents in the world--in addition to the one in the northern Pacific there is one in the northern Atlantic (the northward-bound western portion of which is well known to us as the Gulf Stream), and three others in the southern Pacific, southern Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. (These last three, since they are south of the equator, circulate counterclockwise.) Each of these gyres has a grand garbage dump at the center of its vortex, but none of these have been studied as extensively as the GPGP. Over the next few years we will probably find that they, too, are each accumulating millions of tons of poisonous plastic bits.

So, (1) use as little plastic as you can (natural materials have natural degradation paths),
(2) choose "biodegradable" rather than non-degradable or photodegradable plastics as much as possible,
(3) recycle plastics that you use as much as you possibly can,
(4) vote for mitigating legislation whenever it is available, and
(5) pray for us.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Life Has Many Moving Parts

Daniel Burd is a teenager. He lives in the town of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. He is a bright kid. At 16, he is a junior at the Waterloo Collegiate Institute where he gets good grades and also takes part in the student council, sports, and music activities.

Late last year Daniel's science teacher, Mark Menhennet, encouraged him to think up a project he could submit to the annual Canada-Wide Science Fair in Ottawa. Daniel decided to see if he could find some common bacteria that would break down polyethylene plastic bags.

Every year some 500 billion polyethylene plastic bags are manufactured in the world. They are light and strong, easy to handle and quick to throw away. But they degrade very slowly; they take many decades, if not centuries, to decompose. So landfills around the world are filling up with them and millions of square miles of ocean are effectively poisoned by their floating debris.

They decompose slowly, very slowly, but they do decompose. Something in nature is capable of breaking them down chemically and returning their carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen components back into the natural cycles of life. And Daniel set out to figure out just what that "something" was--presumably some microorganism like a species of bacteria with just the right set of enzymes--and to see what could be done to help it "take out" this pernicious trash.

So Daniel ground up plastic bags to a fine powder. And he gathered dirt from local landfills--dirt that might well have the crucial microorganisms. And he let them stew together for several weeks. And, lo and behold, the plastic weighed less--it had been significantly broken down chemically.

To make a long story short, Daniel found two bacteria that could digest polyethylene plastic bags. His project won first prize at the Science Fair; he won a $10,000 prize, a $20,000 scholarship, and international renown.

I said, "To make a long story short," but an important point of this story is that it WAS long. Before he started, Daniel reviewed the world scientific literature to see what had and hadn't been done on this problem, and to decide what techniques might be most likely to succeed. He ground up the plastic with table salt, then washed and filtered the mixture to remove the salt. He dried the plastic grindings and passed them through a strainer so that only uniformly small plastic pellets would be used. He prepared a growth medium of several inorganic chemicals plus a very low concentration of yeast extract. He incubated the plastic powder and dirt in the growth medium for four weeks, reinoculated part of it into clean growth medium for another four weeks, and then did the same for a third, final four-week period. He then took this final enrichment culture and exposed measured pieces of polyethylene bags to it for six weeks, and measured the weight loss of the polyethylene strips (Of course he used "controls" at each stage of this experimental process.)

In other words, his "simple" experiment was not simple at all. It involved a series of knowledgeable and complicated steps. But it worked. There was something in that final enrichment culture that decomposed polyethylene.

But that is not the end of the story. Daniel then went through an elaborate series of careful steps to isolate and identify the bacteria that had done the job--they turned out to be species of Sphingomonas and Pseudomonas. And even that is not the end of the story. Preparing a report of his work and submitting it to the Science Fair involved many more thoughtful and sophisticated steps and many hours of work.

When I was young, I heard the saying, "Build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door." This turns out to be untrue. I have known several brilliant people in my life whose ideas could have--should have--revolutionized the world. But carrying creative brilliance through to successful application turns out to be a long, complicated process involving many steps, any one of which may be ignored, forgotten, or mishandled and derail the whole process. Life has many, many interdependent moving parts.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

So Much Trouble--So Little Time

Carl Sagan told the story--often repeated, but in need of rehearing--of the two country gentlemen out for an early-morning horseback ride in the pleasantly foggy, seashore countryside. They hear the morning coach stampeding toward them; it rushes past, horses out of control. They look at each other: "My God, the GATE!" They charge off on their speedy mounts, passing the coach, and getting to the crucial gate in time to throw it open before the coach pulls into view and rushes past them. As they watch it recede into the fog, one turns to the other--both still out of breath--and screams, "Fifty pounds they go over the cliff at Fisherman's Curve." "Done," screams back the other, and they gallop off after the coach to check on their wager.

Anyone over 30 remembers the terror--minute by minute, year after year--of the Cold War when nuclear annihilation hung over our heads, fractions of a second away, hinging on the whim of psychotic world leaders. But one has to be over 70 to remember the Nazi tide of horror that swept across Europe and around the world during World War II--population centers of Europe and Asia bombed to rubble; German submarines sighted off U.S. coasts; air-raid drills held nightly so enemy bombers would not be able to see the lights of New York City.

How often can humanity wrap itself in wet sheets and plunge through another fire? How long can one hold one's breath underwater this time?

Worldwide environmental degradation is upon us. Pollution and global warming progress year by year, not just decade by decade. Despeciation, deforestation, and desertification accelerate day by day, not just year by year. Global finances are so facile that trillions of dollars flit around the world in seconds, errors and glitches flitting along with them--sometimes even directing them. Science and technology continue to develop nano-devices that may infiltrate our lives and destroy us while we sleep; weapons of mass destruction that get smaller, more mobile, and more lethal year by year; genetically engineered foods--and people--with helter-skelter outcomes just around the corner; and through it all IT (information technology) whipping it all into an accelerating, frenzied froth. The backdrop for all this is the explosion and dislocation of human populations--hoards of millions migrating, displacing and slaughtering one another for food, water, and Lebensraum.

I do not know the next chapter in this story--even the next page--the next sentence.

Do you?

Monday, November 17, 2008

U.S. Energy Problems

The U. S. has about than 4.5% of the world population, but we use some 25% of the energy the world's humans consume. So, point one, we need to get a lot less profligate in our use of energy--less stupid things like overnight lights (e.g., in big buildings), Christmas lights, energy-wasting light bulbs, vehicles that get less than 40 or 50 miles per gallon (and 95% of private vehicles with a driver only--no passengers--but outfitted to carry 6 or 8), food (and everything else) shipped hundreds and thousands of miles, minuscule use of mass transit, etc. We simply do not use our energy resources efficiently. Did you know, for example, that of a gallon of oil extracted from the ground, approximately 95% of the energy in that oil is consumed transporting and transforming it? Only about 5% goes to final fuel or heat, or to some other useful purpose.

Point two: Although we have vast and adequate energy resources, we buy most of the energy we use from foreign countries. We even have vast clean ("green" renewable) energy resources in the U.S. We have a huge, heavy, steady wind corridor through the mid-west. We have vast shoreline tide and wave energy resources. We have significant geothermal sources that could provide energy from the heat of the Earth's innards. And we have enormous untapped solar energy resources--if one fourth of the vacant commercial-building-top space in the U.S. were covered with solar panels, that could provide enough energy to satisfy the present needs of the entire country.

There are a couple of reasons we do not use the energy we have. The main one is habit or tradition: it is simpler to do things the way we have grown used to doing them (and a lot of big business is financially ensconced). But we also do not have the infrastructure to make efficient use of these resources. It would require an expenditure of approximately $6-$10 billion over at least ten years to build a sufficient power grid to bring the wind, wave/tide, and geothermal power from its sources to where it is needed. There are also some limitations imposed by available technology, but these are trivial. Sure, we could improve our methods and machines, but essentially we know, engineering-wise, what we need to know.

Drilling for more oil is problematic. Whether in Anwar or offshore (or anywhere), the R & D and infrastructure costs are high, and the environmental risks and damage are significant. Other hydrocarbon fuels--coal, natural gas, and methane hydrate--are available in enormous amounts, but here again the R & D and infrastructure costs are high, and the environmental costs are, frankly, unacceptable.

What about nuclear power? There are three problems. First and foremost, it has a bad reputation with the public; this is perhaps largely unwarranted, but in any event it is difficult to overcome. Second, the initial capital and infrastructural costs are enormous. Third, there are significant technical problems to be overcome, not just security in preventing another Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, but in processing, transporting, and securing nuclear-reactor scats. There is no technically proven way to reprocess radioactive byproducts to make them safe (though it is theoretically feasible) nor any sane way to store them safely (unprocessed) for tens of thousands of years.

The U.S. has significant energy problems. Some "solutions" such as McCain's proposals to "Drill, Baby, Drill" and to provide a $400 million prize for invention of an efficient battery are just plain silly. Some, such as T. Boone Pickens' idea to wind-electrify West Texas are intriguing. But, overall, there are technically feasible solutions. What is needed is public information, political will, and economic heft.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Crude Payback

By the time a barrel of crude petroleum emerges from the ground at a wellhead, it has already incurred considerable expenses. The costs of exploration and survey, of the drilling equipment, and of the business structure and education and training of the executives and technicians must be paid back. Not only that, but like a rich uncle who makes it big in the stock market, a productive well must pay for all its failed cousins.

After capture at a well, the crude petroleum must be transported--by ship, train, truck, or pipeline--to a refinery. The value or energy content of the oil must pay for this transportation, not just of the trip itself, but of the infrastructure of machines and people, business structure and administration, of the transportation system.

At a refinery, the crude oil is heated (which costs energy) and distilled into gasoline and a variety of other products. Catalysts and additives are used--each of which has its environmental and other cost footprints. The costs of designing and constructing the refinery apparatus, and of the training, ongoing salaries, and other expenses (such as medical and retirement benefits) of the people involved must be borne by the energy value of the crude oil.

A barrel of crude oil, that is 42 gallons, produces 19.5 gallons of refined gasoline (plus some other products). These are then shipped to consumer outlets which have obligated further extensive and expensive infrastructure costs of distributors, manufacturers, stores, and gas stations.

When a gallon of gasoline is pumped into an automobile, about 25% of the energy it delivers goes into producing forward motion of the vehicle.* The rest is lost in heat (into the exhaust and through the cylinder walls and head), to overcome friction and air turbulence, and to run equipment and appliances such as the engine's oil and water pumps and the electricity generator.

The net result of all this is that after crude oil is removed from the ground, about 5% of its energy value is delivered to the wheels of the car. The other 95% goes to infrastructure, people, and machinery necessary for the transportation, refinement, delivery, and utilization of the oil and its products.


* This figure of 25% is an average for a normal automobile with an internal combustion engine. Obviously when the engine is idling but the car is sitting still, the efficiency is zero. On the other hand, moving straight and level at a moderate speed (say, 20 mph) in clear weather without using such amenities as radio, heater, or air conditioner, the efficiency may approach 75%.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Green Crude

Algae are a group of primitive plants best known to us as seaweeds and green pond scum. But algae are actually a large and diverse group--there are more than 30,000 species. And their uses by humans are legion. Seaweeds have been used as fertilizer for centuries, but over the past few decades, numerous other kinds of algae have been farmed commercially--
to produce fertilizer components,
to release hydrogen for energy production,
for pollution control (to mop up specific toxins),
to synthesize chemical laboratory aids,
for nutrition supplements,
for use in cosmetics, etc.

Their genetic makeup can be manipulated to make them complex biological factories. They can even be "taught" to produce fuel oils. Some species of algae have lipids (that is, fats and oils) amounting to as much as 40% of their dry weight.

In May 2008 a company in Sonoma, California--Sapphire Energy--announced that they had succeeded in producing the equivalent of petroleum crude oil from certain species of algae grown on non-arable land (dry, polluted wastelands). The process uses algae with chlorophyll to bind the energy of sunlight into long carbon chains, producing oils from carbon dioxide in the air.

This "green crude" is economical to produce and is fully equivalent to "black crude" petroleum. It can even be fed into the same refinery and transport infrastructure as black crude, and can produce gasoline with an octane rating of at least 91. Since it is grown on land that cannot be farmed for other purposes, it does not compete with food production (as growing corn for ethanol fuel does).

This may truly be a breakthrough in the production of fuel which is renewable (grown as needed) and non-polluting (the net carbon footprint is zero since it puts into the atmosphere only carbon it has previously removed from the atmosphere).

Friday, November 14, 2008

Diesel from Trees

Gliocladium roseum is a fungus recently discovered living inside trees in Patagonia. It represents a Holy Grail for molecular biologists because it synthesizes diesel from cellulose.

Most of the bulk of a tree--in fact, the vast majority of all the stiff, fibrous tissue found throughout the plant kingdom--is cellulose, consisting of long, polymerized chains of sugar molecules. Although most simple sugars are readily digested, the long chains cannot be broken down easily--which is why humans cannot eat wood. This takes special enzymes (termites have special bacteria in their gut than can digest the cellulose) or, in the laboratory, considerable heat, pressure, and the use of chemical catalysts.

Bio-fuels are usually made by fermenting the free (unpolymerized) sugars (for example, in corn) to produce alcohol. But this leaves the vast majority of the biomass in the corn as waste cellulose.

G. roseum is the first organism discovered in nature that can perform both the necessary steps. It can break the cellulose down into simple sugars, and from these it can synthesize hydrocarbons that closely resemble diesel fuel.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fire Ice

It looks and feels like a little piece of ice, but when you touch a match to it, it burns with a low, blue flame.

It is methane hydrate, a solid form of water that contains a large amount of methane (natural gas) within its crystal structure. In fact, a single small ice cube can have more than a cubic foot of methane gas locked in it. Moreover, it is stable up to the freezing temperature of water (32 degrees Fahrenheit); under moderate pressure, it can even be stable up to close to room temperature.

Technically methane hydrate represents a physical form of matter called a "clathrate," a lattice-like crystal structure that has holes or windows that can contain other substances.

Methane hydrate occurs naturally under certain ocean and deep-lake conditions. And the world stores are enormous--they may account for as much captive carbon as half the total of all other fossil fuel reserves combined (oil plus coal plus and natural gas in gaseous form).

Over the past ten years, the U.S. and Japanese governments have put millions of dollars into researching the physical chemistry and economic potential of methane hydrate. There are significant problems associated with drilling for it and recovering it for commercial use. But methane hydrate may soon make an important contribution to satisfying humanity's energy-hungry needs.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Battery Hoax

Lead is poisonous. It causes damage to the brain and nerves, and to other vital organs as well. Even in low doses it can accumulate in the body over weeks and months and cause terrible, permanent damage, even death.

Lead can be absorbed into the body from contaminated air or water or food, even from soil and house dust.

Lead used to be used in a lot of things--in gasoline, paints, plumbing pipes, ceramics, toys. It can be a very useful chemical. But because it persists in the environment and is so toxic, it has been legally banned from most of those uses.

Except batteries. Lead batteries pack so much electricity per dollar that they have been difficult to replace--especially car batteries. About 3/4 of world lead production goes into car batteries--over 5 million tons a year.

It should be reassuring to hear that car batteries are efficiently recycled; it is legally required, in fact, the recycling cost is built into the purchase price. Supposedly over 95% of car batteries are recycled, so their lead does not go into land fills or toxic waste dumps to pollute and poison the environment, it goes back into more batteries.

Or does it?

Car batteries can be made with a lead-antimony alloy (which CANNOT be recycled cost-effectively into batteries) or a lead-tin alloy (which CAN be recycled into batteries--which, by the way, last five times longer than lead-antimony batteries).

So far so good: all we have to do is make new batteries out of lead-tin and be reconciled to junking the old lead-antimony batteries until, in a few years, the supply dies out. But the trouble--one part of the trouble anyway--is that it is hard to tell the difference between the two kinds of batteries when they come for recycling: batteries are not marked "lead-antimony" or "lead-tin." So most lead-tin batteries are thrown in with the lead-antimony ones, "recycled" into junk, and shipped overseas (because of U.S. laws) for discard.

Moreover, lead-antimony batteries keep being made. Why? Lead mines want to keep mining lead. That's how they make money. They would rather not have the lead from car batteries recycled. And car-battery manufacturers want to make batteries that must be replaced every couple of years--replacement is how they make most of their money.

So year after year most car batteries are still made with lead-antimony instead of lead-tin, and are "recycled" after a couple of years into junk lead (shipped overseas) while new lead is mined to make new batteries. And even the lead-tin batteries that are made, when they finally wear out, get junked with the lead-antimony ones.

That's the "battery hoax."

What needs to be done? Lead-tin batteries need to be clearly labeled (despite industry pressure). In fact, lead-antimony should go the way of tetra-ethyl lead in gasoline and lead in house paints, plumbing, toys, and ceramic glazes--it should be illegal to manufacture lead-antimony batteries.


Addendum--non-lead batteries

[Quoted from The Free Encyclopedia on the Web]

The nickel-iron battery is a storage battery having a Nickel(III) oxide-hydroxide cathode and an iron anode, with an electrolyte of potassium hydroxide. The nominal cell voltage is 1.2V. It is a very robust battery which is tolerant of abuse, (overcharge, overdischarge, short-circuiting, and thermal shock) and can have very long life even if so treated. It is often used in backup situations where it can be continuously charged and can last for 20 years. Its limitations, namely, low specific energy, poor charge retention, and poor low-temperature performance, and its high cost of manufacture compared with the lead-acid battery along with its having a lower energy-to-weight ratio led to a decline in usage.

[Also from The Free Encyclopedia]

A nickel metal hydride battery, abbreviated NiMH, is a type of rechargeable battery similar to a nickel-cadmium (NiCd) battery but has a hydrogen absorbing alloy for the anode instead of cadmium. As in NiCd batteries, nickel is the cathode. A NiMH battery can have two to three times the capacity of an equivalent size NiCd and the memory effect is not as significant. However, compared to the lithium ion chemistry, the volumetric energy density is lower and self-discharge is higher.

Applications of NiMH-type batteries include hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius and consumer electronics. The NiMH technology will also be used on the Alstom Citadis low-floor tram ordered for Nice, France; as well as the humanoid prototype robot ASIMO designed by Honda. Standard NiMH batteries perform better with moderate drain devices such as digital cameras, flashlights, and other consumer electronics, but, because NiCd batteries have lower internal resistance, they still have the edge in very high current drain applications such as cordless power tools and RC cars.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Unique Alien Ecosystem

Ecosystems typically have many different kinds of interacting organisms; there are often thousands of different species cooperating and competing for living space and for needed resources. For example, most species that do not have chlorophyll to harvest energy from sunlight must, directly or indirectly, eat other species that can perform that miraculous transformation. Or one species may depend on other species to manufacture or break down specific chemical bonds or provide specific nutrients for food or fuel. In some cases one species depends on another for protection--and gives something in return.

The ecosystems science has studied seem to imply that life can only exist in complex interconnected webs of varied life forms. Very few ecosystems are known that have only a few mutually supportive and competing species. None has ever been found that has only one kind of organism totally cut off from outside biological give and take--not until recently. A bacterium (given the poetic name Candidatus Desulforudis audaxviator*) has been found deep in a South African gold mine. This species has evidently been isolated from other living things and their products for millions of years. It gets its energy from the decay of radioactive uranium in the surrounding rocks, and it has genes to extract raw materials and to produce all the complex carbon and nitrogen chemicals it needs to sustain life.

This, more than any other known organism, could be a key to understanding what kinds of life can flourish on extraterrestrial planets far away from us in the Universe, planets with harsh, isolated environments that we did not previously believe could support living things.

* The name comes from a quotation from Jules Verne's novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. The hero, Professor Lidenbrock, finds a secret inscription in Latin that reads: "Descende, audax viator, et terrestre centrum attinges" (Descend, bold traveler, and you will attain the center of the Earth).

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Natural Nuclear Reactor

The natural atomic reactor that emerged in Gabon in Africa some two billion years ago truly represents one of the most amazing--though little known--scientific discoveries of all time.

In 1972 a French lab technician was running some routine tests on uranium ore samples. These tests were meant to monitor the quality and international movement of ore from mines around the world. But the tests turned up a curious anomaly: some of the ore from the Oklo mine in Gabon, Central Africa, showed a peculiar ratio of uranium isotopes.

Over the next few years as nuclear scientists puzzled over these findings and performed some further studies on radioactive breakdown products in the ore, an amazing picture emerged. Some two billion years ago, because of a curious coincidence of ore type, movement of the Earth's mantle, oxygen concentration in the atmosphere, and groundwater flow, the uranium deposits in this mine went critical--they started a nuclear chain reaction. The radioactive uranium suddenly overheated by several hundred degrees, explosively boiling off the ground water. This reduced the critical concentration of uranium and shut the reaction down. Over the next two and a half hours the rocks cooled enough to let ground water, rich with uranium, seep back into the reactor site; the critical reaction was re-triggered.

This explosive cycle continued every three hours, over and over, for tens of thousands of years. Some five to six tons of uranium was consumed in this process; approximately 15,000,000 kilowatts of thermal energy was produced every year.

Subsequently 16 sites have been found that may have gone critical in this way. These are all in and near the Oklo mine. There are also several other uranium deposits around the world with similar geologic configuration.

Because of this unique thermonuclear experiment, scientists have learned some strange and wonderful things about nuclear physics. These include some unusual insights into the formation and development of our planet, but also challenges to fundamental ideas about the formation of the cosmos, even to the stability of fundamental "constants" including the hallowed constancy of the speed of light.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The China Problem

Two hundred years ago Napoleon Bonaparte conquered western and central Europe and even plunged eastward into Russia. But when asked about China, which might well have been on his agenda, he replied, "Let China sleep, for when she wakes, the world will tremble."

China sleeps no more. Over the past century in fits and starts, with invasions and revolutions, often with vicious dictatorial efficiency, often with savage humanitarian tragedy, China has risen from the obscure primordial soup of Oriental darkness into the glaring light of a Westward-looking world power.

China is a problem for the U.S. (and the rest of the world) for several reasons. First, it is huge; China has roughly the same land area as the U.S. (just over 3 1/2 million square miles) but more than four times the number of people (China has a population of 1.3 billion--one fifth of all the people on the planet).

Second, it has developed a manufacturing infrastructure which is highly competitive with the vast Western machine. In fact, since it is not "burdened" by the same humanitarian or ecological concerns as the West, it has effectively beaten entrepreneurial capitalism at its own game. China manufactures consumer products from toothbrushes to TVs, from microscopes to tractors at a fraction of what they can be produced for in the West, and ships them around the world.

Third, as a result of being a net-exporting nation, China has accumulated enormous foreign exchange reserves. In fact, China owns some $350 billion of U.S. treasury debt, more than any other nation except Japan and the U.S. itself. The U.K., next biggest nation creditor of the U.S., holds $239 billion of U.S. Fed IOUs; the oil-exporting countries combined own $100 billion.

Fourth, China is an enormous global polluter. It launched its violent assault on Western-style industrialism without developing the West's historical constraints (which are, themselves, often considered rather meager and inadequate). China's own air and water pollution are the worst in the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that air and water pollution in China are responsible for some 750,000 premature deaths each year; this represents about 1/3 of the world's total--remember that China has only about 1/5 of the world's population. And China releases about 1/3 of the global total of major atmospheric pollutants--of sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide.

Fifth and finally, Chinese culture is regimented, tightly politically controlled, and bereft of humanitarian concerns that--though often ignored and even violated in the West--are an intrinsic part of Western culture: they are ideals we believe in for ourselves and also ideals we would like to export abroad. Nonetheless, the Chinese people are defiantly proud--even xenophobic.

Diplomacy and international relations between the U.S. and China have been at best ragged during the Bush years. There are compelling reason to elevate diplomatic relations with China to the highest level of inter-cultural concern and sympathetic skill.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Immigration Dilemma

The Statue of Liberty stands over New York City's harbor, the biggest and busiest port in the world, and she proclaims,

Send me your tired and your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to be free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

And millions of downtrodden refugees from around the world have poured through that golden door, leaving the worlds they knew--their homes, their friends--behind them, seeking a chance to build a better life for themselves and for their children. And in doing so--in bravely pursuing their own dreams--they have helped build the strongest, freest nation the world has ever known.

They are part of who we are, an important part. Their struggles and successes are part of the "American Dream." They have contributed to our strength, our diversity, our image--of how we see ourselves, and of how we are seen around the world.

One principle that must be held high in any debate about the immigration problem is that immigrants have formed the backbone and flesh, the hopes and ideals of our nation; they define our past and our future. To turn them away in high-handed arrogance because we are rich and they are poor is to turn our backs on our own heritage, and to abort the promise of our own better nature.

But the world, these days, is full of troubles--of poverty and oppression, of hunger and disease, and, yes, of bigotry and genocide. Tens of millions of downtrodden people around the globe would seek our sanctuary if they could. On the one hand we want to share our American wealth and freedoms as we always have, and on the other, we are not so strong and endless in resources that we can afford to dilute our bounty endlessly.

That is the dilemma--the immigration conundrum. We want to help--to open our arms and our hearts to those who need sanctuary. It is "who we are"--what we, as a land and a people, have always been; and what we want to continue to be in order to build the best possible future for ourselves and for our children. But the ills of the world threaten to overwhelm us. We are not so vast and so strong that we can help everyone.

So we must secure our borders. Our sovereignty and safety depend on it. We must have strong immigration fences at airports and ports and geographic boundaries. But we must have a generous heart as well--a willingness, nigh enthusiasm, to share our bounty with those who seek to join us.

This, the immigration dilemma, is one of the most difficult challenges, the most difficult puzzles, the most difficult knots to untangle, that the next president and his administration will face. This, along with
(2) the science, technology, pollution, ecology, energy dilemma, and
(3) the financial--and broader economic--dilemma, and
(4) the foreign policy, world-forces and national-image problem,
will present the next president and his administration with a very full plate.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Immigration Strategies

The dilemma we face in dealing with immigration is that, on the one hand, we want immigrants to join us both (1) to honor our heritage, our self-image, our American Dream; and (2) to make their diverse contributions to our future as a nation, to our strengths. But on the other hand, (1) our resources are not boundless--there are a hundred times more persecuted and downtrodden people in the world than we have resources to rescue, and (2) our national security demands that we protect ourselves from alien threats. How can we best balance these factors?

First and foremost, the tide that washes onto our shores is not uniform; in fact, it is very diverse. There are students and teachers (and skilled administrators and researchers, etc.) who are smart and knowledgeable; there are laborers who are unskilled and hungry; there are the threatened and abused fleeing religious or political persecution; and there are other types or categories who seek to join us as citizens.

First principle: All newcomers should make a contribution, for example, in community service or in agreeing to pursue their skills and professions for the public good. Those who are in this country illegally should pay taxes on everything they have earned here--imputed to cover undocumented and unprovable years, and all brought forward as if they had been earned in the year of application for citizenship (so that the longer one waits, the higher percentage income tax bracket one falls into). These taxes are, of course, not due all at once; the IRS already has mechanisms for installments and for carrying forward overdue amounts.

Second principle: Those with the most to offer our society and those with the most to fear abroad should have the highest priority for favorable immigration action (this is already in place to a large extent).

Third principle: Our borders and air and sea ports should be guarded according to a realistic risk/cost assessment. Customs can never be 100% secure. And if it costs $100 billion a year to secure our entry points at the 95% level, then it costs $200 billion to achieve the 97% level, and $300 billion to reach the 98% level, and $400 billion to secure at the 98.5% level, etc. We can never reach 100% security; we should plan security expenditures with this in mind--explicitly, realistically.

Effective immigration strategies for our vast and diverse land will require thoughtful planning, strong leadership, and long, hard implementation and management.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Incarceration Milestone

According to The New York Times, the U.S. achieved a milestone earlier this year. The incarceration rate in the U.S. has been high and growing for decades; in February 2008 it passed 3,000,000. This means that 1 in 100 U.S. citizens are behind bars.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world.
The second highest country, Russia, has a rate about 2/3 as high.
And our peers, European countries, Canada, and Mexico have rates about 1/10 as high.

Moreover, most of the U.S. citizens behind bars are there for non-violent crimes.
In fact, most of the U.S. citizens behind bars are there for drug-related offenses.

It is appalling to realize that the E.U. has 100 million more citizens than the U.S., yet the U.S. locks up 100,000 more of its citizens for drug offenses alone than the E.U. does for all offenses.

The fiscal impact is staggering.
$40 billion was spent on prisons and jails in the U.S. in 2000.
Of that, $24 billion was spent to incarcerate non-violent offenders.
Several states (including CA and NY) have larger budgets for prisons than for education.

But the price is not just fiscal. Consider the impact on society of millions of people out of the workforce, out of their communities, cared for by taxpayers. And not just while they are incarcerated, but afterward as well because they are under-trained and under-educated, out of step with social changes, and stigmatized legally and socially.

On Sept. 14, 2008 The New York Times ran an interesting article about disenfranchisement of ex-felons. The following is quoted from it.

“ 'I can’t vote because I got three felonies,' Mr. Benton told Ms. Bell. He had finished a six-month sentence for possession of $600 worth of crack cocaine, he said. But Ms. Bell had good news for him: The Florida Legislature and Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, changed the rules last year to restore the voting rights of about 112,000 former convicts.

“ 'After you go to prison — you do your time and they still take all your rights away,' Mr. Benton said as he filled out a form to register. 'You can’t get a job. You can’t vote. You can’t do nothing even 10 or 20 years later. You don’t feel like a citizen. You don’t even feel human.'

"Felony disenfranchisement — often a holdover from exclusionary Jim Crow-era laws like poll taxes and ballot box literacy tests — affects about 5.3 million former and current felons in the United States, according to voting rights groups."

The harshness of sentencing practices and the incarceration of such a large fraction of our U.S. population is an embarrassment and blight on our national reputation; a violation of our most deeply held ideals and self-image as the "land of the free," a beacon of civil liberties around the world; and source of personal tragedy for many millions of our fellow citizens.

It is an important problem. What can we do about it?

Source: and elsewhere

Barack Obama says he is concerned about this problem and has plans to attack it. His extensive staff has made special efforts to enroll ex-felons in states where they are eligible.
John McCain has made no comment about it.