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

Phobos

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.

2011
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, Dioscuri, 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 Mind Controlling Egret

IMG_7960This spring I acted as a chaperone for a second grade class visiting a park to learn about the beach ecosystem. The 7 and 8 year olds learned about Florida alligators, peered through a telescope to view a nesting osprey in the top of a dead tree, and encountered the Snowy Egret.

When I first saw the Egret, I saw nothing particularly interesting about him. He was small, an apparently young wading bird doing what Egrets do, stilting into shallow water looking for minnows.

We had just learned how tiny the brain of an alligator was, and I thought the brain of this little bird couldn’t be much larger. But what I didn’t know was that it was capable of controlling the minds of eight year old humans.

Park Rangers, never passing up a chance to educate children, wanted to show the students how fish start off life in shallow water estuaries, like that surrounding St. Andrews Park located between St. Andrews Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Small fish grow up to be big fish, or else get eaten by bigger fish, which grow up to be eaten by us. It’s all part of the oftentimes short circle of life for fish species.

IMG_7977With education in mind, two rangers took a seine net into the water and scooped up a bounty of small fish, placing them into shallow plastic pans for the children to observe.

IMG_7979

The children were then asked to identify as many of the small fish as they could using Ranger-provided identification charts.

IMG_7981

In the meanwhile, I noticed that the bird was no longer looking towards the water for fish. The Egret started sizing up the children, and apparently decided upon a different plan of action; a mind-control plan of action. The children had a lot more fish in front of them than the bird did. How could he turn that situation around?IMG_7969

Perhaps he’d learned from past experience that eight-year old boys are more easily manipulated than eight-year old girls. He seemed to single out one of the older boys and locked eyes on him. Perhaps the boy’s sixth sense alerted him that he was the recipient of stares, because he turned away from the other children and stared right back at the telepathic bird. And then I heard the boy utter the words all little fish must instinctively know will bring their doom. “Let’s feed them to the bird!”

Being a biologist by training and heart, I attempted to save this sampling of the next generation of fish by saying, “No, the Rangers want the fish back in the water to grow up.”

The Rangers remained silent, perhaps having seen this scene play out before. And the children were deaf to my words, hearing only the words of the boy. What a great idea!, their young faces seemed to say. And in a matter of seconds young hands began plunging into the shallow trays, scooping up the hapless fish, carrying the youngsters in their cupped hands to toss into the water directly in front of the waiting bird.

Temporarily stunned by impact with the water, the fish lay immobile just long enough for the bird to clasp them in his beak and swallow them whole.

Admittedly, I was too stunned to capture a photograph of the slaughter. You will just have to use your imagination; it was all over for the young fish in a matter of seconds.

At the time I wondered if I should tell my grandchild that she had been manipulated by a bird with a pea-sized brain, but I’m sure those words would have been wasted, just as had been my plea to stop the slaughter.

Biologists spend careers studying interspecies communication, verbal and non-verbal. Well, this may well be an example of non-verbal communications between animals and humans.

Which leaves me to wonder: should the normally derogatory term “bird brained” really be a compliment?

 

 

 

A Geometric Mind

211px-Gestalt_in_the_Eye
By Impronta – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

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.

Temps0600-3blank1
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?

Temps2000-2blank1_inverted

 

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

Temps0600-3blank1_inverted

 

And a fourth image, Figure 4.

Temps2000-2blank1
Copyright John R. Clarke.

 

Now, lets try some variations on the theme.

Temps0600-3blank1Temps0600-3blank1_inverted

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Temps2000-2blank1

Temps2000-2blank1_inverted

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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.

N1144Y_desat_300dpicrop

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)
“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.

 

 

Burn My New State Flag – I Don’t Care

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I’ve decided to invent a new series of non-controversial flags for all 50 states of the United States of America.

I began with a plain white flag. Not much to be controversial about there. (By the way, I was not the first to think of that.)

Then I proposed adding to each state flag the two letter state identifier used for our postal system. We’ve been using those for decades, so again, no controversy.

For instance, the Florida flag would be white with FL in the middle of it. If the state is really proud of itself, it could be a big, bold FL. If they’re a little embarrassed by, oh I don’t know, crime rates, hate crimes, voter apathy, or whatever, they could use smaller letters, and maybe not bolded. The voters could decide.

But voters would not get a choice on the overall design. Two white letters on a pure white background – that is the state flag formula.

Of course I tried this idea out on a focus group made up of mixed gender identity, mixed ethnic, educational level, and mixed financial levels. I even took care to keep the test group evenly divided among political parties.

And that’s when the trouble began.

Unfortunately there were many, many complaints, but I’ll only mention some of the more interesting ones; all based oddly enough on the Periodic Table of the Elements.

Take my state of Florida or example. FL stands for Florida of course, but the “F” in it represents the element Fluorine, a chemical which I believe has strengthened my teeth since childhood. But some believe it is a toxic chemical dumped into our water supply by all levels of government, (county, city, state and federal) to poison Americans. [Google it. I will not provide a link to those websites.] I’m highly skeptical of that notion, but I wouldn’t want to offend them by forcing them to look at “Fl”uorine on their flag.

And then there’s Florida’s neighboring state, Alabama. AL can stand for Alabama, but it also is the symbol for aluminum. Aluminum is cheap and not very strong. Some Alabamians don’t like that word association, even though it’s been on their U.S. mail since 1963.

AR for Arkansas also means Argon, a narcotic gas. Some didn’t want to be associated with stoners.

GA for Georgia is also gallium. Gallium melts at approximately body temperature, which was too troublesome of an association for those who are still pained by Sherman’s March to the Sea through Georgia. A melting-in-the heat mineral connotes weakness, which Georgians certainly don’t want their flag suggesting.

The most memorable scene in "Gone With the Wind" was the recreation of Confederate Gen. John B. Hood's destruction of his own munitions train. The scene was filmed on a studio lot in Los Angeles in December 1938.
A frame from “Gone With the Wind” published at http://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2014/08/31/The-burning-of-Atlanta-seared-into-America-s-memory/stories/201408310090

CA for California, also stands for calcium, a component of lime, which is basically crushed limestone. Water and carbon dioxide react to form acidic water that dissolves limestone. With an atmospheric carbon dioxide rise and global warming, some apparently fear that acid rain will dissolve their state, leaving nothing but caverns leading straight to geological fault lines. Even though I don’t think there’s an awful lot of  limestone in California (certainly not like Florida), some just don’t concern themselves with the facts. Apparently, for them this fear is too horrendous to contemplate, so CA is out as far as a state flag goes.

MT stands for Montana, or Meitnerium. I must admit I wouldn’t have thought of that one, but apparently some apologist did. I was quite surprised to find out that Meitnerium was created by Germans after a week of bombardment of bismuth with iron. The notion of Germans bombarding anything with iron for a week was simply too painful for those who had survived the Nazi bombardment of Russia and Poland. Apparently some take the analogy very seriously. The MT flag had to go.

Louisiana, or LA, is also Lanthanum, which in Greek means “escapes notice”. It is soft enough to be cut with a knife. It was reported that students from the LSU Chemistry Department strongly objected to being compared to a soft, highly reactive, and hardly noticed element. I guess I can see their point.

PA or “Protactinium” sounded like an interesting element synonymous with Pennsylvania. That is until someone pointed out the following from the Los Alamos Periodic Table of the Elements. “Because of its scarcity, high radioactivity and high toxicity, there are currently no practical uses for protactinium other than that of basic scientific research, and for this purpose, protactinium is generally extracted from spent nuclear fuel.” OK, I get it. There is basically nothing in that sentence that would be a point of pride for Pennsylvanians.

Why does this have to be so hard?

Not far away geographically or chemically from PA is MD, or Mendelevium. That element is named after Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian Chemist who apparently invented the (or maybe “a”) Periodic Table. He is certainly a noteworthy man to help us remember the state of Maryland (MD), but ever since Vladimir Putin went on the offense in Eastern Europe, no state wants to be associated with anything Russian. I can understand that.

Then there is Indiana, or Indium. Now who could find anything to complain about either Indiana or Indium? Well, lo and behold, someone read that Indium gives out a high-pitched “cry” when bent, somewhat like a little girl I suppose. That20140530_125613 discovery immediately condemned it as being sexist, mocking our youngest young ladies.

Really? This is getting ridiculous.

There were a few flags that were not deemed objectionable by anyone. For example, MN stands for Minnesota, or Manganese, as in deep-sea manganese nodules. No one objected to MN, so Minnesota, I guess your flag stands. The same went for SC, South Carolina, or Scandium; no objection. Then there was CO for Colorado, or Cobalt, and MO for Missouri or Molybdenum.

Ironically, people have been writing these state initials on their stationary for years and no one objected. However place the same initials on a state flag and someone gets offended; which is a fact that puzzles me. You see no one salutes a state flag. No one pledges allegiance to it. It has no power, no meaning. If you don’t like my flag, make up your own!

To be fair and all-inclusive, I thought about alternative flag designs that might appease everyone. Suppose we just number the states in the order in which they entered the union (ratified the Constitution). The first four would be Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Georgia. But of course some highly competitive New Yorkers might be miffed that Georgia, a Southern State, entered the Union before New York did. And we can’t have any New Yorkers miffed.

So then I considered a random number generator. Your state might be State 87.42 and the adjoining state might be 91.82. That was a fine idea until I considered that the same problematic scientists who fussed over their concerns with a Periodic Table of the States would question how truly random was the random number generator.

It exhausts me to think of the possibilities.

So, if I was King for a Day I would simply say this is how it will be: All states will have white flags with two letter state identifiers. If someone doesn’t like it, then burn it, deface it, walk on it; I don’t care. It has no meaning except to let people know what state they’re in. And if that’s a problem, if people really don’t know what state they’re in, then using my powers as King for a Day I’d give everyone a free GPS.

Now, does that make everyone happy?

 

Of Mussels and Whales

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Cuvier’s Beaked Whale. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

It was a coincidence forty years in the making. I was recently at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, talking to Scripps professor and physician Paul Ponganis about deep diving whales. He told me about the recent discovery that Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, an elusive whale species, had been found to be the deepest diving of all whales.

How deep I asked? One whale dived to 9,816 feet, about 3000 meters. At that depth, water pressure exerts a force of about 4400 pounds per square inch (psi), equal to the weight of a Mercedes E63 sedan pressing on each square inch of the whale’s ample body surface. That is a seriously high pressure, a fact that I knew well since I had once created that much pressure, and more, in a small volume of sea water in a pressure vessel at the Florida State University.

Early in my science career I published my work on the effect of deep ocean pressure on intertidal bivalves, a mussel (Modiolus demissus) being among them. I found that if you removed the hearts of such molluscs (or mollusks) and suspended them in sea water, they would continue to beat. Furthermore, those excised hearts would beat when subjected to 5000 psi of hydrostatic pressure. As if that wasn’t surprising enough, the slight genetic differences between Atlantic subspecies and Gulf Coast subspecies of mussels resulted in the isolated hearts responding slightly differently to high pressure.

 

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If you’ve eaten live raw oysters, a cousin to mussels, you’ve eaten beating hearts like the one in this photo. (Click to enlarge. Photo credit: rzottoli, Salt Marshes in Maine, at HTTP:// wordpress.Com )

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The mussel Modiolus demissus in their natural habitat at low tide (Photo credit: rzottoli, Salt Marshes in Maine, at HTTP:// wordpress.Com )

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That was a remarkable finding I thought since none of those mussels had ever been exposed to high pressure; ever as in for millions of years. (This study occurred long before the discovery of deep sea vents and the almost miraculous growths of deep sea clams.)

Eventually my research transitioned from invertebrates to humans. Humans, like intertidal mussels and clams, are not normally exposed to high pressure. But like my unwilling invertebrate test subjects, sometimes humans do get exposed to high pressure, willingly. But not so much of it. Deep sea divers do quite well at 1000 feet sea water (fsw), manage fairly well at 1500 fsw, but don’t fare well at all at 2000 fsw. That depth seems to be the human pressure tolerance limit due to the high pressure nervous syndrome, or HPNS. At those pressures, cell membranes seem to change their physical state, becoming less fluid or “oily” and more solid like wax. Cells don’t work normally when the very membranes surrounding them are altered by pressure.

The Beaked Whale is genetically much more similar to man than are mussels. Therefore, man is far more likely to benefit by learning how Cetaceans like whales tolerate huge pressure changes, than we are to benefit from the study of deep diving (albeit forced diving) clams and mussels.

As I talked to Dr. Ponganis it was obvious to him, I suspect, that I was excited about learning more about how these animals function so beautifully at extreme depths. But to do that, you have to collect tissue samples for study and analysis in a laboratory. The only problem is, collecting useful tissue samples from living whales without hurting them may be a bridge too far. Humans rarely even see Beaked Whales, and if the Cetaceans wash up on shore, dead, their tissues have already been degraded by post-mortem decomposition, and are no longer useful for scientific study.

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MIT’s RoboTuna; ca. 1994. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Potentially, here is a job for underwater Cetacean-like robots that when released in a likely Beaked Whale environment, can locate them, dive with them, and perhaps even earn their trust. And when the whale beasts least expect it, those robotic Judases could snatch a little biopsy material.

If only it were that easy.

Considering how difficult it would be to acquire living tissue samples, would it be worth the effort? Well, if man is ever to dive deeper than 1500 to 2000 feet without the protection of submarines, we must learn how, from either the mussels or the whales. My bet is on the whales. Unlike mussels, the whales dive deep for a living, to catch their preferred prey, squid and deep sea fish.

 

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What are arguably the first studies of the effects of high pressure on intertidal bivalves (mussels and clams) can be found here and here. Moving up the phylogenetic scale, Yoram Grossman and Joan Kendig published high pressure work on lobster neurons in 1990, and rat brain slices in 1991. I made the leap from mussels to humans by conducting a respiratory study on Navy divers at pressures of 46 atmospheres (1500 feet sea water), published in 1982. For a more recent review of high pressure biology applied to animals and man, see the 2010 book entitled Comparative High Pressure Biology. My theoretical musings about the mathematics of high pressure effects on living cells can be found here.

With time, these studies, and more, will add to our understanding of mammalian pressure tolerance. However, it may well take another generation or two of such scientific effort before we understand how the Beaked Whales make their record-breaking dives, and survive.