Canoeing the Little Nianqua River in the Ozarks

“Nianqua” means “many springs” in the Osage language. It’s those little springs that make canoeing down the Little Nianqua river a favorite pastime for adventurers. The Little Nianqua is a tributary of the Nianqua River which empties into the Mississisppi.

In between freshman and sophomore year in college (September of 1966), a high school friend from the Presbyterian Church near our home in Kansas City, KS, suggested we take a canoe trip in the Ozarks about 150 miles southeast of Kansas City.

The portion of the Little Nianqua normally canoed is about 35 miles, and with time out for climbing the over-looming bluffs, visiting Osage sites and generally goofing around, we would have to spend the night sleeping on a sandbar, propping the canoe over us for protection. It sounded like great fun.

A photo of me canoeing while Richard Thorn photographed from a sand bar.

Here was the goofing around part. I made an emergency outrigger out of a barrel and some limbs.

It sort of worked.  At least it didn’t sink.

Improvised overnight accommodations.
Richard on the lookout for girls. He didn’t find any.

Those bluffs were pretty high, but of course we felt compelled to climb them.

Below is a view of our sandbar encampment from the bluff.

Apparently, Richard was not aware that the spirit of the departed Osage do not like to be disturbed. Otherwise, he would not have perched on an Osage burial mound.

Richard tempting fate.

Spirits Revenge

Shortly after we returned home, Richard and I borrowed my family’s 55 Buick Special and went to a drive in. I was almost 21 years old, so I felt inspired to procure a gallon of Ripple wine. I have no idea what the movie was about, but Ripple actually tasted better than its reputation.

Unfortunately, the spirits of the Osage decided at that moment to seek their revenge. Richard spilled half of the gallon of Ripple, inside the Buick.

Our feeble attempt to soak up the wine and clean the interior was of no avail. No matter what we did, the car stank of cheap wine.

As luck would have it, we both had to head back to college almost immediately. As soon as I was back in Georgia, my parents  traded in their one and only car. Somehow, I doubt they got much for it.

I lost touch with Richard Thorn when my parents sold the house in Prairie Village, threw out my child-hood toys (for spite maybe?), hopped into their station wagon with that fresh, new car smell, and headed to a warmer clime, southeast Texas.

Strangely enough, they never said anything to me about that Ripple event. But I guess, compared to my flying off with the keys to the Buick when I flew back to Atlanta the previous January, without enough gas in the car for Dad to make it home, and having poor Dad walk to a gas station, in a snowstorm, well, the Ripple event simply paled in comparison.

However, that “no-keys event”, they did tell me about.

I guess the lesson is, respect the spirits of the dead, or you will pay in ways you cannot imagine.

Perhaps you have read about the Osage in my novels. The Osage ancestral lands were located in Missouri around the Ozarks and over to the Mississippi River. Reportedly, French fur traders found the Osage women to be quite attractive. So much so that supposedly, many of the traders married Osage women.

A young Osage mother and child.

In spite of that intermarriage, when land-hungry settlers moved from Tennessee to Arkansas and Missouri, the government relocated the Osage to Oklahoma, right next to the relocated Cherokees. In fact, to this day, Pawhuska, Oklahoma, a town I’ve visited and written about, is the current home of the Osage Nation.

About the only Osage thing the white man did not replace, was the name of their river in Missouri, the Nianqua.

In summary, if you’re so inclined, have fun canoeing the Little Niangua. But do be careful where you tread.

The Basic Chemistry of Nitrogen Dioxide

“The U.S. President was on the phone with the President of China when a video from the International Space Station came in from the NASA feed to the Emergency Operations Center. A huge burnt-orange cloud was covering the entire southern Pacific, extending all the way up to Hawaii and down to New Zealand. This was no ordinary nuclear explosion.”

The recent deadly explosion in Beirut, and the science fiction thriller, Atmosphere, book 3 of the Jason Parker Trilogy, both involve a toxic, brownish-orange gas, nitrogen dioxide. Of course, one involvement is fictional, and the other, sadly, is not.

From the first chapter of Atmosphere, we find a description of the effects of a gamma ray burst hitting the Earth. “Rampaging winds began spreading toxic nitrogen dioxide clouds around the planet, and within days, the earth was fully affected.”

Considering the violence with which nitrogen dioxide is associated, the way it is created is relatively simple. Some chemists will no doubt claim that the following discussion is too simplistic, but I’ll let them fill in the blanks, if they so choose. As advertised, this is just the basics.

Given enough energy, and localized temperatures on the order of 3000°C, nitrogen molecules (two atoms of nitrogen, N2) combine with oxygen molecules (two atoms of oxygen, O2) to form a chemically unstable gas, nitric oxide, NO.

In chemical terms, N2 + O2 → 2NO

If the searing NO gas is cooled rapidly in the presence of oxygen molecules, the toxic, brownish-orange gas, nitrogen dioxide, is formed.

2NO + O2 → 2NO2.  (This is really nasty stuff!)

It’s been known since at least 1911 that the temperature of an electrical arc (6000° – 8000°C) is enough to cause N2 and O2 to form NO. If the hot gaseous NO is then rapidly cooled, NO2 results.

In the science fiction novel, NO2 was created high in the atmosphere by a cosmic burst of high energy gamma rays (GRB) colliding with nitrogen molecules in the presence of oxygen. Lightning also creates nitrogen dioxide, although in relatively small quantities. But if you increase the energy and the quantity of nitrogen and oxygen, “a huge burnt-orange cloud” would be formed.  

According to current estimates, that is exactly what happened in Beirut.

Apparently, an industrial fire caused the thermal decomposition of large quantities of ammonium nitrate, which energetically broke down to form massive quantities of nitrogen gas, oxygen and water.

2NH4NO3 → 2N2 + 4H2O + O2.

The resulting high temperature N2 and O2 instantly combined to form the toxic burnt orange cloud of nitrogen dioxide, as seen in the above photo.

The exact mechanism of NO2 formation likely differs among the progenitor sources (GRB, lightning, explosion), but the basics should be the same.

What happened to the poisonous cloud of NO2 after it formed? Unlike what would happen in the upper atmosphere during a GRB, near the surface there is enough moisture for the NO2 to quickly combine with water to form nitric acid.

3 NO2 + H2O → 2 HNO3 + NO

Nitric acid rain would not be pleasant, but would not be as bad as nitrogen dioxide.

So, imagine if you will, a cosmic event (a GRB) far more violent than any man-made explosion. Imagine the entire atmosphere turning into a cloud like that in the photo above. Arguably, that is what would happen after a devastating GRB from within our galaxy.

Actually, that toxic nitrogen dioxide cloud would be the least of the planet’s troubles. It would be a very bad day on Earth.

The good news is that such an event would be very unlikely.

But then again, this is 2020.

Happy Hypoxia – A 2018 Warning

“Happy hypoxia,” or more properly, silent hypoxia, has been one of the most puzzling signs and symptoms of patients presenting to Emergency Rooms with COVID-19. The patient’s arterial oxygen saturation can be in the fifties instead of the normal values in the upper 90s, and yet the patient can be cheerful, fully coherent, and even chatty. Normally, with that low an oxygen concentration in the blood stream, a patient would be in severe respiratory distress.

I experienced silent hypoxia after a visit to Thailand in July of 2018, which makes me wonder: was there a coronavirus lurking in Southeast Asia in 2018 that later mutated to become the killer SARS CoV-2? Did I have SARS CoV-1.5? 

Summertime was everything you would expect in Thailand. It was warm and humid, but not uncomfortably so. I had twelve hours ahead of me in the Bangkok Airport waiting for my return flight to Taiwan, then the long leg across the Pacific to Los Angeles. Eventually, I would make my way back to my home in Panama City, Florida, which would also be hot and muggy. No surprises there. 

What was a surprise, was that a young lady wandering the airport asked if she could interview me for the Thai Ministry of Tourism. She had official looking IDs, and a load of interview questions. I wasn’t interested, and I was busy, I offered, already tired before the twelve hours of dead time even began.  

In truth, I wasn’t that busy, but felt it best not to mingle. I seemed to be the only person not speaking Thai, except for that young lady. Surprisingly,  she had no detectable accent and could pass for a Southern California blond.

After a couple of hours, she returned when I could no longer claim to be busy. She had a simple, youthful attractiveness and an unassuming manner. So, tiring of the boredom of waiting, I allowed her to sit beside me while she started running down her list of tourism related questions. 

She wanted to know why I came to Thailand. It was to give a talk at a medical and scientific conference on sports medicine. My subject was “Oxygen,” a fact that would soon become ironic. I discovered later that my travel, ostensibly paid for by the Thai Sports Authority, was bankrolled by Beijing. But I didn’t know that at the time. 

For 45 minutes the questions continued. They were business-like, the type of questions I would expect from a Tourist Bureau. But one thing caused me concern, her occasional hacky cough. She insisted it was nothing, and I was not alarmed. I thought no more about it as I finally boarded the plane for the first leg of my long journey home.

Eight hours after my arrival in Panama City, I felt ill as I lay in bed, trying to sleep after being exactly twelve hours time-shifted. I felt sicker by the minute. Jet lag doesn’t do that.

By morning, I had suffered chills and sweats, and my physician son insisted I be taken to the closest Emergency Room. As we neared the ER I felt I was going to vomit, and I leaned into a trash can that my wife brought for that purpose. 

The next thing I heard was her screaming at me.

I yelled back, completely confused and annoyed. “Why are you yelling at me?”

“I thought you’d died,” she said. “You sighed, threw your back into the seat, and your arms were stiff and shaking.”

Apparently I had passed out from a drop in blood pressure.  (I had not yet thought about hypoxemia.)

As I was being monitored in the ER, I felt OK. I conversed with my wife, and was half-joking and half-irritated at my unexpected welcome home event.

After awhile, I began to pay attention to the finger tip pulse-oximeter that was monitoring my arterial oxygen saturation. The reading was slipping lower than I had ever seen before, but neither the nursing staff nor the attending physician seemed the least bit concerned. My wife and I continued to chat. I was not in any discomfort, and ignored the monitors until I caught sight of the updated pulse-ox reading. It had plummeted down to a horrifically low 55%. 

I told my wife to alert the nurse. They finally started me on a nasal cannula with oxygen. (For those who know, that was an incredibly delayed reaction.) I also knew enough to realize I should be almost stuporous, yet I wasn’t. I was content, except for my circumstances.

Within a few minutes, an ambulance transported me to a real hospital. Being aware of my overseas travel, they assumed I had a pulmonary embolism, which if detected, would have required immediate surgery. But after a perfusion scan, nothing abnormal was revealed. 

After settling into a room, I had zero desire for any of the food they brought me. It was all tasteless, and remained that way for two days.

Initially they kept me on 3 liters of oxygen per minute by nasal cannula, which still wasn’t bringing my oxygen saturation above 84 percent. That was a problem.

At the urging of the CDC, the nursing staff came to my room fully gowned and face-shielded, and stuck that infamously long sampling swab up my nose. They tested me for the most recent viral illness in Southeast Asia at the time, the H7N9 Bird Flu virus of 2017. The results were negative.

In spite of my growing displeasure with being in the hospital, and not tolerating the taste, or lack thereof, of their food, I was happy and chatty with the nursing staff. But neither I, a respiratory physiologist, nor the medical staff could figure out what was wrong. My X-rays showed some consolidation in my lingula, a small lobe in the middle of my lungs, but that was not enough to cause hypoxia of the level I was experiencing. 

After a while, I began to get a few signs of pneumonia in my lower lung lobes, but not enough to cause any discomfort, or difficulty breathing. While physicians clobbered the growing infection with antibiotics and steroids, I remained happily hypoxic.

After five days in the hospital, and slowly watching my oxygen saturation rise, a respiratory therapist snuck behind me and turned off the oxygen. My saturation remained low, at 88%, but it didn’t drop further. 

That meant, I would remain on air until discharge. That encouraged me enough to call for a walking test, walking down the hospital corridor breathing nothing but air. Unfortunately, I failed that test, and was sent back to bed.

About that time, a pulmonologist came by and told me I had a good bit of atelectasis (collapsed alveoli or lung sacs) in my lower lobes. Finally, something I could fix. I knew what to do.

I wore out my incentive spirometer over the next couple of hours, and then called for another walking test. The Respiratory Therapist chided me…I would just fail again, she said. But I do love a challenge. With her by my side, I moved slowly down the hall, refusing to talk, and that time my oxygen saturation did not drop. 

Due to that walking test, I was discharged from the hospital with an oxygen saturation of 92% and returned home to fully recover. (That is in itself an interesting story which I’ll write about next.)

However, the point of this post is that as I read about COVID-19, I’m finding that physicians are puzzled about some of the same bizarre symptoms I experienced in 2018,  notably  a silent hypoxia. I was never “short of breath” as would be expected with an arterial saturation in the fifties. 

From my studies of respiratory physiology, I knew that what had happened to me in 2018 should not have happened, according to the text books. I did not have the SARS virus identified in 2017. But viruses mutate constantly. Could my symptoms have been the signs of a predecessor or cousin to COVID-19? Could it have been an unrecognized COVID-18?

When lungs are not filled with fluid from rampant pneumonia, the most likely way to become hypoxic breathing air is through something called ventilation-perfusion (V-Q) mismatch. A pulmonary embolus can cause massive V-Q mismatch, and can quickly kill if untreated.

However, a recent Science article suggested that COVID-19 might cause microemboli resulting in silent hypoxia. It seems reasonable that enough microemboli, if that’s what it was, could have caused my symptoms in the summer of 2018 without being detected on a pulmonary perfusion scan. 

And that worries me for the current pandemic. Summer heat and humidity might not kill this virus. It certainly didn’t kill the virus that I presumably caught from a pretty young girl with a “nothing” of a cough in late July of 2018. It may have been nothing for her, but it was sure something for me.

None of my friends at the medical conference got sick upon returning home. I was the only one spending 45 minutes less than a foot away from that coughing girl. I feel pretty confident where I got it. My only question is, did I pick up a version of coronavirus that was beginning to mutate towards the destructive potential of SARS CoV-2 which erupted just over a year later?

As for the statue at the beginning of this blog post? It is the Yaksha Guardian Giant at the Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport. If you ask me, he failed completely at protecting me from a tiny little virus. The guardian was awfully big, but sometimes size does not matter.

When Heat Pumps Become Killing Machines

Heat pumps have been a boon for efficient residential heating and cooling, at least in those regions of the country where winter temperatures do not consistently hover in the frigid range. In the southern United States, whole house heat pumps are arguably the most efficient way to heat and cool a house. Outside temperatures rarely fall below twenty degrees Fahrenheit, and even at 20°F, there is plenty of ambient heat available to heat a well-insulated home.

Owners of heat pumps have probably noticed that in the summer, heat removed from the home is released into the outside air. Heat coming off the outdoor unit, the actual heat pump, is hot. On the other hand, they may not have ventured out on a winter night to see how cold the exhaust from a heat pump is when it is in “heat” mode. But cold it has to be. Compared to a temperature of absolute zero, winter air is hot as hades. A heat pumps works by extracting some of that heat and sending it into the house to warm the house occupants.

But you can’t get something for nothing. Once the pump extracts a portion of the heat from cold outside air, that outside air must become colder.

Into this thermodynamic saga enters a non-native lizard called the Cuban or Brown Anole. The lizards are invasive, which means they are decimating the native Green Anoles which have long existed in the South Eastern United States. The Cubans are larger, more aggressive than the Greens, and reportedly feed on young Green Anoles. 

Cuban Brown Anole [Anolis sagrei]

However, they have a weakness. As you might expect for any species originating in Cuba and the Bahamas, they don’t like the cold. Whereas Green anoles range as far north as the Carolinas, the Browns do not. In fact, after a cold night in the Florida Panhandle I found a Brown Anole hard frozen on my doorstep. Perhaps he sensed warmth seeping from under the front door, and was trying to get in the house. Well, he didn’t make it.

The Greens, on the other hand, apparently shelter on or underground in leafy areas to survive the occasional cold dip.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Anole-Green-cropped.jpg
Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis)

As the outside temperature begins to drop in the late fall and winter, heat-seeking tropical lizards can be found warming themselves on top of the outdoor heat exchanger of our AC unit. When the proverbial nip is in the air, owners of well-insulated Florida homes plagued with high humidity, continue to run their air conditioning until late in the season.

For the Anoles, that is both a boon and a risk; it can prove to be a dangerous warming strategy. If frightened by the sudden appearance of a homeowner, Anoles run. When in their panic they fall into the running fan, the attempted evasion does not end well.

But the greatest insult is a thermodynamic one, which comes when the outside temperature drops even lower. Naturally, that chill makes the warmth from the heat exchanger even more attractive to the lizards. That is, until one of the human occupants decides it’s time to turn on the heat.

Thermodynamics being what it is, that switch almost instantaneously turns a warming source of air from the AC unit into a frigid blast of air.

Which explains why one morning after turning on the heat, I discovered the freeze-dried carcass of a Brown Anole clutching tightly to the grill of the AC unit. Apparently, the already chilled tropical lizard had what little strength it had left suddenly sapped by the high velocity blast of cold air. It died in place. (I have spared you the photo I took at the time.)

There is a moral to this story I believe.

As we grow cozy with new technology we don’t understand, while basking in the warmth and seduction of advanced engineering with its seemingly miraculous capabilities, perhaps we should remember this little lizard. It had acquainted itself with the bright side of thermodynamics, without realizing there was a dark side. Likewise, with the throwing of a switch, seemingly magical technology could be our undoing.

A serving of Artificial Intelligence, anyone?

Phobos, Chariot of Fear


The title of this posting is no hyperbole. The “Chariot of Fear” is the ancient Greek personification of the mythological God Phobos, described by the ancients as horror riding his chariot across the night sky.

In reality, the diminutive moon Phobos, almost skimming the surface of the warrior planet Mars, is a potentially innocuous place to visit assuming you have a pressure suit and oxygen to breathe. Like Earth’s much larger moon, there is no atmosphere on Phobos. There is also no appreciable gravity.

NASA and Japan are planning a joint unmanned mission to the moons of Mars in 2024. The joint venture is called the Martian Moons eXploration Mission, or MMX. Those unmanned missions may be a prelude to later manned landings since NASA has considered landing astronauts on Phobos before landing on Mars, due to the lack of atmosphere and ultra low gravity of that moon.

Using the Hubble telescope, NASA generated a short video of Phobos as it orbits around Mars.

NASA video made from 14 Hubble Space Telescope images.

While researching a new novel, I was looking for a view of Mars from Phobos. Using the astronomy software Starry Night Pro 8, I found it.

Further more, I was able to make a 3 minute video of Mars going through an entire rotation, sped up of course some 150 times.

While the above video is aesthetically pleasing because of the background stars and the entirety of Mars being in the field of view (FOV), in reality Mars is too far away in this simulation. As the NASA movie suggests, the surface of Mars is much closer (about 6000 km away from Phobos), and thus in reality Mars fills a quarter of the celestial horizon as seen from Phobos. In other words, from Phobos the FOV of Mars is about 45°, which yields a more accurate view as shown in the following video, also made using Starry Night Pro.

Mars at a realistic distance.

The shadow of Phobos can be seen racing across the surface of Mars, to the left of center of the Martian equator.

From a writer’s perspective, thanks to affordable but sophisticated astronomical simulation software and a bountiful database of space objects and trajectories, both near and far, there is no longer an excuse for science fiction writers not getting their scenes setup correctly, assuming their stories are based on the observable universe.

As for the unobservable universe, well that’s where this thing called imagination comes into play. In an imaginary universe, there’s no fact checking allowed.

Cosmic Coincidence

Almost exactly a year ago, I began writing one of my third novel’s introductory chapters. I am sharing a sample of that chapter at this time because of what seems to me to be a recently discovered coincidence.

“There is never an end to a thing once it is started, according to astrophysicist Peter Green. We can call it an end, but that doesn’t make it so.

A person can be born, grow old and die, but his or her energy goes on, somehow. It may not be recognizable, but physics says it must be that way.
Even a universe is born, grows for a seeming eternity, yet eventually it too must die. Some say in its end, there is a new beginning.

Dr. Peter Green knew those facts better than most. As an astrophysicist working with colossal machines of physics research at CERN, Switzerland, machines that have the power to peer into the beginning of the universe, he’d often thought about not just the beginning, but the ending, the ending that precedes what comes next.

His specialty was dark matter, and something perhaps related, dark energy. We can’t see either, but physics says they must exist for the universe to be what it is.

Either that, or physics is wrong, and neither Green nor his scientist colleagues had ever found physics to be in error.

But he did wonder, if a universe dies, does it leave behind a ghost, unseen but somehow there, with mass that exists at grand scales, but nonexistent at human scales?

And if so, must not the nature of our universe, the shape of our galaxies, depend on an ever-growing graveyard of dead stars, galaxies — and people?

Where does it end? Well, it doesn’t, not really. At least that’s how Dr. Peter Green saw it.”

Arguably, that’s a pretty unconventional thought, Dr. Green had, even for cosmologists who, as a whole, are renowned for unconventional thinking. And at the time that I wrote it, I thought it was a good way to illustrate that the character Peter Green was brilliant, but a bit odd.

Well, he is odd no longer.

I say that because just today I saw a LiveScience article, from which I quote:

“Physicists have found what could be evidence of ‘ghost’ black holes from a universe that existed before our own.

The remarkable claim centers around the detection of traces of long-dead black holes in the cosmic microwave background radiation – a remnant of the birth of our universe.

According to a group of high-profile theoretical physicists including Oxford’s Roger Penrose (Ph.D. in mathematical physics), these traces represent evidence of a cyclical universe – one in which the universe has no inherent end or beginning but is formed, expands, dies, then repeats over and over for all eternity.

Roger Penrose

“If the universe goes on and on and the black holes gobble up everything, at a certain point, we’re only going to have black holes,” Penrose told Live Science. “Then what’s going to happen is that these black holes will gradually, gradually shrink.”

 When the black holes finally disintegrate, they will leave behind a universe filled with massless photons and gravitons which do not experience time and space.

 Some physicists believe that this empty, post-black hole universe will resemble the ultra-compressed universe that preceded the Big Bang – thus the entire cycle will begin anew.

 If the cyclical universe theory is true, it means that the universe may have already existed a potentially infinite number of times and will continue to cycle around and around forever.

Penrose is clearly one of the great minds of the world, as you can perhaps appreciate from this YouTube clip.

As a reminder, this is also what the fictional cosmologist in the upcoming novel, Atmosphere, believed.

“He did wonder, if a universe dies, does it leave behind a ghost, unseen but somehow there, with mass that exists at grand scales, but nonexistent at human scales? And if so, must not the nature of our universe, the shape of our galaxies, depend on an ever-growing graveyard of dead stars, galaxies — and people?

Where does it end? Well, it doesn’t, not really.” 

Pretty interesting coincidence, don’t you think?

Read the LiveScience article here.

Living Off Universal Energy. Really?

By stuart Burns from Erith, England (_MG_7185 Uploaded by snowmanradio), via Wikimedia Commons

I thought I was misreading the title of the news article. I adjusted my glasses, then looked again.

Sure enough, the news headlines this past week actually reported on a young couple, reportedly a Breatharian couple, who claimed they had no need for food. They lived off of Universal energy, whatever that is. Most amazingly, the news-hungry press actually reported the story, obviously without a bit of fact checking.

As a physiologist, I know that is a patently ridiculous claim. It is impossible for humans to survive without eating. And as a science fiction author, I know it is not even good science fiction. The best science fiction maintains at least a little scientific accuracy.

Could it be fantasy? Maybe, but the story was reported as being true, with no hint of tongue-in-cheek.

However, it did remind me of a revelation of sorts from a few months ago, coming to me in a split second after a quick glance to the side of the road. What attracted my attention as I passed by at 55 miles per hour was a gorgeous white egret, like the one pictured, foraging for frogs and tadpoles in a ditch recently filled to overflowing with water from several days of downpours.

And then it struck me: wouldn’t it be nice if things did not have to die so that other things can live?

Now that’s a fantasy for you. Of course life is predicated upon death. Big animals eat smaller and weaker animals. Physicality cannot exist without death; you cannot live in the body unless something else dies. That’s life, pure and simple. It sucks to be the little guy.

But what about after life? Well, at the risk of turning in my scientific credentials, I will admit I do believe in an after-life, Heaven if you will, for reasons which I will not go into here. But it struck me in that brief moment of observing a beautiful bird, that only in a spiritual realm could energy exist without the simultaneous extinguishment of life.

To my way of thinking, that may be the single greatest distinction between the spiritual realm and the physical realm.

So thank-you Breatharian couple, practitioners of Inedia, for helping me remember my roadside revelation. Perhaps there is a place in some alien realm where beautiful birds, and beautiful frogs, and even humans can coexist without one eating the other. Maybe there is some parallel universe where our laws of physics don’t apply.

Perhaps we will someday discover that parallel universe, and call it Heaven.

















A Geometric Mind

By Impronta – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I challenge you to describe the following images in terms of simple geometric shapes: shapes such as rectangles and circles, and flat surfaces called planes.

If you see one of those shapes in the image, then mentally note it.

You may not be able to completely define the image with those simple shapes, but at least note those parts of the image where you can see a plane, or a rectangle, or a circle.

The shapes are not likely to be seen dead on; they may be seen at an oblique angle.

Color is an interesting variable in the images, but it is not the primary focus of this exercise. The ability to use geometrical shapes is the point of this post.

The first such shape is Figure 1.

Copyright John R. Clarke.


The next shape is Figure 2. Do you see a lighted plane on the left partially obscured by an extruded rectangle, otherwise known as a rectangular prism or cuboid?



Figure 3. Yet another image, somewhat similar to Figure 2:



And a fourth image, Figure 4.

Copyright John R. Clarke.


Now, lets try some variations on the theme.


















The four images immediately above are identical to the first four images, but by seeing them in this order you may detect that there are only two unique images.

The images on the right are simply the images on the left rotated 180°; that is, they are turned upside down.

And yet most people identify an entirely different geometry, depending on which way the images are rotated.

So, seeing is believing …

… or is it?

Separator small

I do not know if this visual phenomenon has a name or not: I accidentally discovered it when looking at images to post on a laboratory wall. One figure looked unfamiliar; I was confused by it, until I happened to rotate it.

As the French say, voila. It was an optical illusion caused by our brain’s tendency to look for familiar shapes in unfamiliar and potentially confusing images.

There is a literature on the illusions of inverted images where images have been digitally manipulated (sometimes called the Thatcher Effect), but the images above have not been altered in any way.






In the Claws of a Monster

By Huhu Uet (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Huhu Uet via Wikimedia Commons
Nature does not always provide good options. When faced with weather-related adversity, making the right decision can be as much a matter of luck as wisdom.

Homerville, Georgia is the home of some first-rate southern barbeque and home of one of the best genealogical libraries in the Southeast, the Huxford Geneological library. In June of 1975 I made an unintended stop at the Homerville Airport after flying my 1962 Cessna 150 from Thomasville, Georgia to Waycross, Georgia. My wife and Mother-In-Law were in Waycross, visiting, and on a Friday afternoon I took off in my 2-seater aircraft to meet my wife’s family 92 miles away.

As I approached Waycross a thunderstorm was directly on top of the field. The Waycross Fixed Base Operator confirmed they were being clobbered, so I made a 180 degree turn and flew 26 miles back to the Homerville airport that I had passed on the way in.

When I landed I found I was the only aircraft, and only human, on the field. But regrettably, there were no tie-downs, ropes or chains that I could use to secure the little Cessna while I found a phone to call my wife and tell her about the change in plans. The weather was good, and it should take only a few minutes to bother one of the nearby neighbors for a phone call. What could go wrong?

After I explained to my family where I was, I thanked the friendly lady who let me use her phone, and headed back to my aircraft. But as I approached the plane, the view at the other end of the runway was turning ugly. Another thunderstorm was headed straight for the field. And it was close, and mean-looking.

I climbed into the cockpit, started the engine, and sat there assessing what I was seeing out the windscreen. And thinking about options.

What I wanted to do was take-off and head for Waycross. I was not at all prepared to abandon my airplane and watch it be destroyed by the approaching storm. As I considered the fact that I would be taking off towards a thunderstorm, I thought of riding out the gusts on the ground, using the engine power and rudder to keep the plane pointed into the wind. But as I throttled the engine and rudder back and forth, reacting to the increasing gusts, I realized the 1000 pound plane would inevitably be picked up, with me in it, and dashed to the ground. It would not be a pretty sight, especially if it was lifted to a significant height by updrafts before being dropped.

The wind ahead of the thunderstorm rain shaft was picking up, gusting, and as I weighed the different options, the storm kept getting closer, closing my window of opportunity. As they say, the clock was ticking.

Finally, I decided I’d rather be airborne, in some semblance of control, than being airborne out of control. The storm was not yet on the field, but I knew I had scant seconds before the cloudy violence would make an escape impossible. I pressed hard on the brakes, dropped my flaps one notch, pushed the throttle full in, and when the engine was roaring as loudly as a 100 horse power engine can roar, I let go of the brakes and started my takeoff roll.

Thanks to the advantage of straight-down-the-runway storm winds, I lifted off very quickly. I stomped a rudder pedal and dipped a wing to turn as fast as I could away from the storm, passing over the roofs of nearby houses much closer than the residents were used to, I’m sure. But the plane was fully in control and headed quickly towards safety.

Although the storm winds were actually helping to push me away, I felt an occasional shudder from the back of the plane. I imagined the storm shaking me in its jowls, plucking at my wings with its sharp talons, as if angry that I had escaped its clutches.

I made it safely to Waycross, but my aircraft’s escape was short-lived.

If there were such a thing as a Storm Monster, I would think that it was malevolent, because exactly two weeks after that incident another thunderstorm hit the field in Waycross, where the plane was supposedly safely chained down. I was on the field as a vengeful storm snapped the steel chains holding down my plane’s tail, flipping the plane over on its back, crushing the tail. My little bird never had a chance.

I had risked my life in Homerville to avoid watching my beautiful bird be destroyed, only to see it destroyed in the same manner only a fortnight later.

We tell our children there are no monsters … but I’m not so sure.


Where Things Move Quickly and Darkly

I came across a great article from the New Yorker with an interesting title. In fact, my interest lasted all the way to the end.

Spooked: What do we learn about science from a controversy in physics?

“Albert Einstein (Nobel)” by Unknown – Official 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics photograph. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

If you get the feeling that science is not as pure of thought and logic as it pretends to be, then you will find some comfort in Adam Gopnik’s approachable review of the deeply hidden controversy surrounding what Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” Spooky action is the weirdest of all science, and makes telepathy and clairvoyance seem almost banal by comparison.

In my opinion, parts of Gopnik’s none-too-technical article remind me of the quote by Dr. Jason Parker, the protagonist in the science fiction thriller, “Middle Waters“. In a supposed speech to the open-minded Emerald Path Society, Parker said, “There are regions between heaven and Earth where magic seems real and reality blurs with the surreal. It is a place where things move quickly and darkly, be they friend or foe. The hard part for me is knowing the difference between them.”

Gopnik expressed that thought more prosaically by the following: “”Magical” explanations, like spooky action, are constantly being revived and rebuffed, until, at last, they are reinterpreted and accepted. Instead of a neat line between science and magic, then, we see a jumpy, shifting boundary that keeps getting redrawn.”

Gopnik goes on to say, “Real-world demarcations between science and magic … are … made on the move and as much a trap as a teaching aid.”

To be honest, I did leave out Gopnik’s entertaining reference to Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam. Again, if you have ever been suspicious of the purity of science, the New Yorker article is well worth the read.

Unlike the concerns of Einstein, Neils Bohr and the rest of the cast of early 20th century physicists, the anxiety of Jason Parker, the fictional hero, is not cosmological; it’s personal. It’s every bit as personal as it is for each of us when we sometimes question our sanity.

Yes, real life can be like that sometimes, when things intrude into our ordered lives, as quickly as a Midwest tornado, but with less fanfare and warning. But every bit as destructive. And it is at those points, those juxtapositions with things radical, unexpected, that we end up questioning our grip on reality.

After all, what could be more unexpected and unreal seeming than the notion that cosmological matter we can’t see, dark matter, could send comets crashing into the Earth, as Gopnik mentioned, and the  Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall wrote about in her book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs.

So, Jason Parker had every reason to be wary of things that move quickly and darkly. They can be a killer.

Sometimes, as in the case of Parker, those internal reflections do end up having a cosmological consequence. But even if they don’t, it’s a good idea to occasionally reexamine our lives for the things which may seem one day to be magical, and the next day to be very real.

In short, the magic should not be dismissed out of hand, because, after all, just like “spooky action at a distance” and “dark matter”, it may not be magic after all.