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welcome to the Urbane Society for Skeptical Romantics, where pretentiousness is as common as muck

an intro to chemistry for dummies by dummies

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orbitals – one day we may understand

Jacinta: Well, in ‘researching’ – I have to put it in quotes cause what I do is so shallow it barely counts as research – the last piece, I came across a reference to Philip Ball’s choice of the top ten unsolved mysteries in science, at least chemical science.

Canto: Philip Ball, author of Curiosity…

Jacinta: Among other things. His list was published in Scientific American in 2011, the official ‘Year of Chemistry’ – which passed unnoticed by supposedly scientific moi. The actual article is largely unavailable to the impoverished, but at least I’ve been able to access the list here. So I thought we might have fun discussing it in our quest to self-educate autant que possible before we die.

Canto: Yes I don’t know enough about chemistry to say whether this is a bog-standard list or an eccentric one, but there are no quibbles about the first mystery – the origin of life. But have we already covered that?

Jacinta: Not really. Ball’s mystery number 1, to be exact, is ‘How did life begin?’ – by which he presumably means life as we know it. And, as Jack Szostak puts it, the answer lies with ‘chemistry plus details’. Putting the right chemistry together in the right order under the right conditions, which they’ve managed to do in a ‘small way’ in the lab, synthesising a pyrimidine nucleotide, as noted in our last post.

Canto: Yes it seems to me we’re never going to solve this mystery by somehow stumbling upon the first life on Earth, or even a trace of it. How will we ever know it’s the first? Then again creating different kinds of conditions – gases and pressures and molecular bits and pieces – and mixing and shaking and cooking, that may not solve the mystery either, because we’ll never know if it happened like that, but it might show how life can begin, and that would be pretty awesome, if I may use that word correctly for once.

Jacinta: Usage changes mate, live with it. So what’s Ball’s second mystery?

Canto: ‘How do molecules form?’ Now we’re really getting into basic chemistry.

Jacinta: But isn’t that a known known? Bonding isn’t it? Like O² is an oxygen atom bonding with another to create a more stable configuration… I don’t know.

Canto: Well let’s look into it. What exactly is a chemical bond and why do they form? Molecular oxygen is common and stable, but what about ozone, isn’t that just oxygen in a different molecular form, O³? Yet in different molecular form, oxygen has different qualities. Ozone’s a pungent-smelling gas, whereas standard oxygen’s odourless. So why does it have different molecular forms? Why does it have any molecular form, why doesn’t it just exist as single atoms?

Jacinta: But then you could ask why do atoms exist, and why in different configurations of protons and neutrons, etc? Best to stick to how questions.

Canto: Okay, I’d like to know how, under what conditions, oxygen exists as O³ rather than O².

Jacinta: So we have to go to bonding. This occurs between electrons in the ‘outer shell’ of atoms. In molecular oxygen, O2, the two oxygen atoms form a covalent bond, sharing four electrons, two from each atom. The water and carbon dioxide molecules are also covalently bonded. Covalently bonded molecules are usually in liquid or gas form.

Canto: What causes the atoms to form these bonds though?

Jacinta: There are two other types of bonds, ionic and metallic. As to causes, there are simple and increasingly complex explanations. I’m sure Ball was after the most complex and comprehensive explanation possible, which I believe involves quantum mechanics. For a very introductory explanation to the types of bonds, this website is useful, but this much more complex, albeit brief, explanation of the O2 bond in particular will leave you scratching your head. So I think we should do a sort of explication de texte of this response, which comes from organic chemist David Shobe:

If you mean the molecule O2, that is actually a complicated question.  It is a double bond, but not a typical double bond such as in ethylene, CH2=CH2.  In ethylene, each carbon atom has a sigma orbital and a pi orbital for bonding, and there are 4 electrons available (after forming the C-H bonds), so each bonding orbital (sigma and pi) has 2 electrons, which is optimal for bonding.  Also, since each orbital has a pair of electrons, one gets a singlet ground state: all electrons are in pairs.

In O2, there are 1 sigma orbital and 2 pi orbitals for bonding, but 12 valence electrons.  Four electrons, 2 on each oxygen atom, are in lone pairs, away from the bonding area.  This leaves 8 electrons for 3 bonding orbitals.  Since each orbital can only hold 2 electrons, there are 2 electrons forced into antibonding orbitals.  This is just what it sounds like: these electrons count negatively in determining the type of bond (technical term is bond order), so 2 sigma bonding electrons + 4 pi bonding electrons – 2 pi antibonding electrons, divided by 2 since an orbital holds 2 electrons, equals a bond order of 2: a double bond.

However, there are *two* pi antibonding orbitals with the same energy.  As  a result, one electron goes into each pi antibonding orbital.  This results in a triplet ground state: one in which there are two unpaired electrons.

That may be more answer than you wanted, but it’s what chemists believe.

Canto: Wow, a tough but interesting task. So a very good place to start is the beginning. By double bond, does he mean covalent bond?

Jacinta: Well according to this clearly reliable site, ethylene, aka ethene (C2H4) is the simplest alkene, that is an unsaturated (??)  hydrocarbon with double bonds – covalent bonds – between the carbons. So I think the answer to your question is yes… or no, there are triple covalent bonds too.

Canto: Okay so I’d like to know more about what a covalent bond is, and what valence electrons are, and then we need to know more about orbitals – pi and sigma and maybe others.

Jacinta: Well guess what, the more you dive into molecular bonding, the murkier stuff gets – until you familiarise yourself I suppose. There are different types of orbitals which lead to different types of covalent bonds, single, double and triple. The term ‘covalent’ means joint ownership, sharing, partnering, as we know, of valence. So how to describe valence? With great difficulty.

Canto: Just watched a video that tells me that covalent compounds or molecular compounds only exist between non-metallic elements, whereas ionic compounds are made up of non-metallic and metallic elements, and ionic bonds are quite different from covalent bonds. And presumably metallic bonds join only metallic elements. Don’t know if that helps any.

Jacinta: Well yes it does in that it tells us we really need to start from scratch with basic chemistry before we can get a handle on the molecule problem.

Canto: Okay, time to go back to the Khan academy.

Jacinta: Yes and we’ll do so always bearing in mind that fundamental question about the formation of molecules. So our chemistry lesson begins with elements made up of atoms so tiny that, for example, the width of a human hair, which is essentially carbon, can fit a million of them.

Canto: And the elements are distinguished from each other by their atomic numbers, which is the number of protons in their nuclei. They can have different numbers of neutrons, but for example, carbon must always have six protons.

Jacinta: And neutral-charge carbon will have six electrons buzzing about the nucleus, sort of. They keep close to the nucleus because they’re negatively charged, we don’t know why (or at least I don’t), and so they’re attracted to the positively charged protons in the nucleus.

Canto: More fundamental questions. Why are electrons negatively charged? Why are positively charged particles attracted to negatively charged ones? And if they’re so attracted why don’t electrons just fall into the nucleus and kiss their attractive protons, and live in wedded bliss with them?

Jacinta: Let’s stick to how questions for now. Electrons don’t fall into the nucleus but they can be lost to other atoms, in which case the atom will have a positive charge, having more protons than electrons. So with the losing and the stealing and the sharing of electrons between atoms, elements will have changed properties. Remember oxygen and ozone.

Canto: So it’s interesting that, right from the get-go, we’re looking at that ancient philosophical question of the constituents of matter. And though we now know that atoms aren’t indivisible, they do represent the smallest constituents of any particular element.

Jacinta: But as you know, that smallest constituent gets weird and mathematical and quantum mechanical, with electrons being waves or particles or probability distributions, with the probability of finding them or ‘fixing’ them being higher the closer you get to the nucleus. So this mathematical probability function of an electron is what we call its orbital. Remember that word?

Canto: Right, that’s a beginning, and it gives me an inkling into types of orbitals, such as antibonding orbitals. Continue.

Jacinta: We’ll continue next time. We’ve only just entered the darkness before the dawn.

Written by stewart henderson

May 23, 2017 at 1:27 am

Putin: a partial portrait of a ruthless barbarian

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a portrait of the small-minded, vindictive, mass-murdering multi-billionaire petty thief as a youngster – who’d have thunk it?

As I lie here, I sense the distinct presence of the angel of death. It is still possible I’ll be able to evade him, but I fear my feet are no longer as fast as they used to be. I think the time has come to say a few words to the man responsible for my current condition.

You may be able to force me to stay quiet, but this silence will come at a price to you. You have now proved that you are exactly the ruthless barbarian your harshest critics made you out to be.

You have demonstrated that you have no respect for human life, liberty, or other values of civilisation.

You have shown that you do not deserve to hold your post, and you do not deserve the trust of civilised people.

You may be able to shut one man up, but the noise of protest all over the world will reverberate in your ears, Mr Putin, to the end of your life. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to my beloved Russia and her people. 

(Final words dictated by Alexander Litvinenko before his death by polonium poisoning, London, November 2006. A public inquiry concluded in January 2016 that Litvinenko’s murder was an FSB (Russian Federal Security Service) operation, that was probably personally approved by Vladimir Putin).


I seem to have always felt an extreme, visceral loathing for Vladimir Putin, or at least ever since the first reports about his behaviour and attitudes began percolating through to me, and in the following posts, at the risk of raising my blood pressure to dangerous levels, I’m going to examine why it is that with each little tidbit that comes my way I loathe him more.

Of course I know why in general terms. I’ve loathed bullies ever since I was a kid being bullied by parents, teachers and boys (and girls) who were bigger than me – which was almost everyone (I mean everyone was bigger than me, not that they were all bullies!). People seem to characterise me as a leftist, but I’ve never thought of myself that way. My politics springs above all else from anti-authoritarianism, though it doesn’t veer off into the kind of atomistic individualism known as ‘libertarianism’. We need each other, and it’s as a profoundly social species that we’ve achieved what we have on this planet – such as those achievements are. And our best achievements, I think, have been more scientific than political.

So, considering my greater focus on science in recent years, I surprised myself some months ago by buying a book on Putin from a second-hand stall at the market near my work. Even as I bought it I asked myself – why? Why make myself angry and outraged? Or was I wanting to indulge in that holier-than-thou feeling you can get from reading about a truly inferior being?

Probably not, since it took me a while to bring myself to start reading the book, entitled The man without a face: the unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin. It was written by an established journalist, Masha Gessen, and published in 2012. It’s a fast-paced page-turner, though necessarily convoluted given that Putin is the embodiment of KGB deviance and disinformation, and it’s reassuringly skeptical about its own findings given the incredibly murky and profoundly corrupt politics of post-Communist Russia – a mafioso-type situation for which Putin is almost single-handedly responsible.

My impressions: when Putin first became a prominent news figure out of Russia almost two decades ago, I knew nothing about him but I didn’t like what I heard and saw. He was clearly no eloquent reformer in the mold of Gorbachev; he looked cold and shifty and seemed inarticulate. From all I’d heard, Russia had become something of a basket case since the collapse of the USSR, and the transition to democracy was progressing slowly if at all. Insofar as I thought about the country at all, I recognised its Czarist history and its lack of any kinds of democratic institutions, but I couldn’t benefit from the knowledge gained from witnessing the mess of post-war ‘democratic’ Iraq and the largely failed Arab Spring. I imagined wrongly that Russia was a quasi-European nation whose sorry history would make its citizens leap at the chance of developing the sorts of democracies that had been so successful elsewhere. Putin hardly seemed the type to lead the democratic advance, but he was probably just a transitional figure. But when the bits and pieces of info started trickling in, I became – well, not so much alarmed as disgusted. After all, I lived worlds away and wasn’t directly affected by his exploits.

First, there were his KGB connections, and his apparent pride in them. Like most westerners I’d learned to think of the KGB as a kind of sick joke, a caricature of an evil spy agency. Any reasonably humane leader would surely have wiped the Russian slate clean of such an organisation, even if it weren’t guilty of half of what it was notorious for (which seemed to me unlikely).

Second was the apparent closing down of independent media outlets, together with the murder of journalists and other prominent persons critical of government. Elimination of ‘enemies’ seemed a high priority for this government, but I also got a sense of general criminality and corruption, so I couldn’t be sure of Putin’s culpability.

Thirdly, the Pussy Riot fiasco, which again I didn’t look into too deeply, but as an anti-authoritarian I was instinctively on their side. I felt that their over-the top antics were a natural reaction to the over-the top repression of the government, though clearly they were doomed to fail and suffer. It was probably for that reason that I didn’t follow events too closely. I had enough in my life to be depressed about. And by this time I was pretty convinced that Putin himself – Pussy Riot’s polar opposite – was the driving force behind much of the nastiness. And when I later learned that one of his favourite forms of recreation was hanging out with a bikie gang that specialised in bashing gays, the picture of a total scumbag and a walking advertisement for abortion was complete.

So now the very thought of Putin turns me, I’m afraid to admit, into a penis-hacking thug who wants to resurrect Vlad the Impaler and his delicious torture methods. Don’t blame me, blame my testosterone.

Of course, the real solution to Putin isn’t so simple or crass. It’s the creation of a civil, respectful society with institutions that promote its thriving. They include a free press, an independent judiciary, a comprehensive and accessible education system that promotes critical thinking and co-operation, and a system of democratic government that’s as open and participatory as practicable. People like Putin wouldn’t be able to thrive in such a society. More importantly, such a society wouldn’t often create people like him.

Of course there’s another good reason why we might need to focus critically on Putin and the Russia that shaped him and that he is shaping. He is the hero and role model of the current US President. Suddenly this genocidal, democracy-loathing multi-billionaire President of a failed state (oh, I’m talking about Putin, not Trump) has become more important to us all than he deserves to be.

One thing I knew almost nothing about was Chechnya (and nor have I paid much attention to Putin’s Ukrainian adventure, which occurred too recently to be included in Gessen’s book). Chechnya, I’ve just discovered, is a tiny landlocked region between the Caspian and the Black Seas. Fundamentally Islamic, it has been in conflict with its Russian or Soviet overlords for centuries; however, after the death of Stalin, who had many Chechens and other ethnic groups in the region forcibly removed from their homes, things were relatively calm. The collapse of the Soviet Union changed all that, and a war of independence broke out in 1990. By the mid-90s hostilities had subsided, but a second war broke out in 1999, at the time that Putin was consolidating his power. Putin’s response was typically ruthless, and by the end of 2000 the main Chechen city, Grozny, lay in ruins, with no attempt to discriminate between fighters and civilians. Extremely bullish and threatening statements made at the time and since have indicated that Putin is prepared to go to any lengths to maintain and if possible extend the borders of his mafia regime. Unfortunately for him, times have changed since the days of Genghis Khan, or even Hitler. I’ve little doubt that he would invade the Baltic states if it weren’t for their NATO affiliations (which Trump, Putin’s greatest fan, has been seeking to undermine), and he must surely be envious and frustrated in his ambitions by the rise of China. He will no doubt try to use his influence on the man-child in the White House to provide licence for murderous adventures on his western borders, though hopefully current revelations will put a stop to that. Meanwhile, have pity for anyone who flags an independent and principled view within Russia itself. And please, everyone, we should try, with international co-operation, to do everything in our power to bring this monster to justice. (interview with Anne Applebaum)

Gessen, Masha. The man without a face. The unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin. Granta, 2012

Written by stewart henderson

May 22, 2017 at 9:18 am

more on abiogenesis – Greenland and other rocks, water everywhere, and the how question

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rock formations that may or may not display signs of life

Jacinta: So I recently watched a Nova video on Youtube, which celebrates, through the geologist and mineralogist Robert Hazen, the relationship between rocks and life, or two worlds we tend to keep divided, the animate and the inanimate, and how they feed off each other. It was fascinating, and I’d like to talk about the effect of photosynthesis on the production of iron in the ocean, but first we should talk about those 3.8 billion-year-old Greenland rocks that we talked about way back when.

Canto: Ah, well, have you heard the latest? It comes from Quebec. Haematite tubes, similar to those produced by microbes around undersea hydrothermal vents, which could be up to 4.28 billion years old…

Jacinta: Yeah, couldabeen, wouldabeen, but I must say the video did argue for a watery planet much earlier than might have been expected, but no clue as yet as to where all that water came from.

Canto: You don’t buy the ‘it came from outer space’ meteor scenario?

Jacinta: I’m no expert but it sounds desperate.

Canto: We’ve found icy oceans on Europa and Enceladus, with probable hydrothermal vents, which we’re keen to explore, so maybe it’s not so weird after all.

Jacinta: Oceans of water?

Canto: Yes, and the Hubble Space Telescope recently observed what’s believed to be plumes of water vapour gushing out from Europa’s surface.

Jacinta: Interesting, but what’s most interesting is the diversity of these early signs of life. They’ve found chemical signatures in ancient microscopic zircon crystals, and ancient microbial mats as far apart as Australia and Greenland, and now, possibly, these very old haematite tubes, all very different from each other, and all very unlikely given what we think we know of the Earth’s early environment.

Canto: And they’re all connected with water, aren’t they? This is one of the mysteries to me, where did all the water come from – on Earth, Enceladus, Europa, Titan…?

Jacinta: Search me. It’s certainly exciting and promising though, NASA scientists say that water, chemistry and energy are the three essential requirements for life, and they reckon those moons have all the requirements. They’re hoping to send back probes to search for that life. But, you mentioned Titan. There’s an environment worth exploring, because, as the  NASA boffins tell us, it has rivers, lakes and rain, but it’s not water. So, to steal a phrase, there could be life there, but not as we know it Jim. And if we were able to find a diversity of life in our own solar system, what’s the likelihood of an almost infinitely greater diversity of life amongst the billions of other solar systems we now know to be out there?

Canto: I want to live forever! I want to have infinite time to explore these possibilities! I wanna be a time lord!

Jacinta: Yes but getting back down to Earth. We’re trying to pin down the first appearance of life here but it’s really difficult, and proving to be controversial, unsurprisingly. What isn’t controversial is that there is a window of about 1 billion years between the Earth’s formation and about 3.5 billion years ago when life must have started here.

Canto: Yes and you’re talking about the when, but the where and the how are likely just as controversial and certainly more important. You’ve mentioned Greenland, and I’ve mentioned the remote north of Quebec, and we’re talking about rocky regions that are difficult to get to and explore, and which have undergone great changes over the eons. So there’s plenty of geological argument about them as well. There’s no doubt these regions contain some of the oldest rocks yet discovered, but there’s a fair amount of doubt about their precise age.

Jacinta: Yes they’ve been much deformed over time, but geologists are finding evidence that they formed under the ocean, and that they show distinct signs of hydrothermal vent activity. As you know, hydrothermal vents have come to be associated with the earliest life forms.

Canto: Yes, the evidence appears to be indirect, and based on analogy at this point. Also, some geologists are tentatively putting the date of these rocks as far back as 4.3 billion years, and that’s very early in Earth’s history. I’m talking here about the Quebec material – what’s being said about the Greenland stuff, has it been verified as actual evidence of life?

Jacinta: Well all the reporting on that came out in August-September last year, all based on a paper in Nature, and I’ve not found anything more recent. The claim was that they’d found evidence of stromatolites, that’s the same features we’ve seen in rather a lot of docos recently, growing in shallow waters in Western Australia’s Shark Bay. They’re microbial mats that build up over time to create these mounds. Fossil evidence of stromatolites found in the Pilbara, also in Western Australia, are reliably dated to 3.5 billion years ago, and that’s the current record for earliest life forms, but the contested evidence of stromatolite fossils in Greenland, if validated, would take the record back another 200 million years, at least.

Canto: And these stromatolites evolved in shallow waters, right? Darwin’s warm, energetic little pond. Not like the microbes supposedly found in northern Quebec. Apparently there’s a tension between the fossil evidence, which generally supports the warm pond thesis, and the genetic and biochemical evidence which takes us more towards hydrothermal vents.

Jacinta: Yes, interesting, and anyway water.

Canto: Well we’re not going to be able to solve the water mystery here. Or answer the when question of first life. I’d like to change tack and think on the how question, surely the most interesting one.

Jacinta: Okay so this is where we turn to variations on, or more sophisticated elaborations of, the Miller-Urey-type experiments.

Canto: Yes – finding the recipe, as is emphasised in this documentary on life’s origins. In one part of the documentary, the story’s told about how John Sutherland and colleagues, workers in the field of prebiotic chemistry (a good term for googlers) have created a ribonucleotide, a building block of RNA, through manipulating plausible early-Earth conditions. This was certainly an exciting development, but progress in this field has been frustratingly slow. Sutherland’s work, and critiques of it, are given in more detail here.

Jacinta: Okay so I’ve googled ‘prebiotic chemistry’ as you suggested, and it’s led me to this article in Nature Chemistry which provides a good relatively untechnical intro to the field. Well okay, a bit technical here and there.

Canto: Yeah and it seems quite a small field considering the importance of the question ‘How did life get started?’

Jacinta: Sounds like they’re having trouble with funding. No pay-offs to the research, and it’s not as sexy as fundamental physics or astronomy. No techno-wizardry like LIGO or the LHC.

Canto: Yes, and you’ll only get really incremental advances. A lab-created nucleotide or two seems a bit of a distance from the beating heart of life to most people. And of course it’s impossible to know, when you do manage to create some building-block towards life from simpler chemicals, if that was how it happened here on Earth (if indeed life actually did start here rather than being transported from elsewhere).

Jacinta: A good last point. If all that water came down in a bunch of early meteor showers, that would seem to make life from meteors much more plausible.

Written by stewart henderson

May 7, 2017 at 11:21 pm

On cramp, sensation and pain

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hard to find a non-athletic-looking image of leg cramp

In recent times I’ve been suffering from cramp, usually in bed in the early mornings, almost always in the calf but sometimes in the foot, around the toes but sometimes at the back of the foot, and invariably on the left leg. So all of this leads to a great variety of thoughts and anxieties. What is cramp? What causes it? Can it be cured or prevented? Why only on the left side? Why now and not in the past? Will it keep getting worse? How to describe the sensation? What’s the difference between a description of a sensation and the sensation itself?  Can pain be measured? Can it be distinguished from pain response?

The cramps I suffer from are clearly not the same thing as those experienced by footballers near the end of a go-for-broke cup final, when they crumple in a heap of agony and have to be massaged back to life by a team-mate, an exercise which also seems to involve a stretching of the afflicted muscle. I’ve heard this has to do with a lack of oxygen getting to the muscle when it’s being strenuously exercised. I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced that kind of cramp (does it feel different?) but I do recall getting a sharp pain in the abdominal region, referred to by others as ‘the stitch’, when, either during a football game or a school run, I exercised myself beyond my level of fitness – which was very easily done. That pain, however, was qualitatively different from the cramps of today. It didn’t feel muscular.

 So now to what the pundits say. First, on ‘stitch’, this BBC health and fitness website has it that ‘most scientists believe the pain is caused by a reduction of blood supply to the diaphragm, causing it to cramp’. It’s certainly common in long-distance runners, but as I recall – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been silly enough to bring on that particular pain – it felt very different from the leg cramps, more like an organ pain, of the stomach perhaps, or the duodenum (I’ve no idea). If it is a muscular cramp, it’s an indication that these cramps can feel very different from each other.

It hasn’t taken me long to realise that the science of cramps isn’t particularly well-developed. Though perhaps that’s a bit unfair – better to say that it’s not settled, due largely to its complexity. Some cramps, though surely not mine, are caused by muscle fatigue, while others are caused by a lack of electrolytes, or it could be a combo.

So what are these electrolytes? Salts, acids and bases mostly, which become ionised in solution when an electric current passes through it. The major electrolytes in our body are calcium, sodium, magnesium, potassium, phosphate and chloride.

Okay, I’ve got it slightly wrong. These electrolytes, or ‘lytes’ as the pundits call them, dissolve in any ‘polar solvent’, such as water, and separate into cations and anions. I learned a bit about this at school but I’ve forgotten. Basically the dissolved lytes become ionised, I don’t know why, becoming either positively charged (having fewer electrons than protons, making them cations), or negatively charged anions (with more electrons than protons). These anions and cations disperse more or less uniformly through the fluid, making it electrically neutral. But when an electric potential (something very complicated, but I think it basically means an electric charge) is applied to the fluid, the cations gravitate (surely the wrong word!) to the electron-rich electrode, the anions to the … other one.

What does this mean for cramp sufferers? Fuck knows, but I think it means that if you don’t have enough of these lytes, for whatever reason, you don’t get this ionisation happening and that’s bad for your body. Anyway, we’ve all presumably heard of these probably bogus electrolyte-bearing drinks that are advertised as a salvation for athletes, of which I’m very obviously not one, but it does seem possible that I’m a bit light on my lytes. What I’m doing here is engaging in a bit of deductive reasoning a la Sherlock Holmes. If you eliminate all the impossibles, whatever’s left, however improbable, is probably true, or something like that.

So… my cramps are definitely not caused by hyperflexion (flexing of a muscle beyond normal limits), or by hypoxia (deprivation of oxygen at the tissue level). Nor is it likely to be a complication of pregnancy (I wish). I don’t want to think about it being symptomatic of kidney or thyroid disease (I feel otherwise healthy), but they’re extreme improbabilities that might need to be looked at later. Three other conditions are highlighted on the fabulous Wikipedia: hypokalemia, hypomagnesemia and hypocalcaemia. Careful inspection from the astute reader should render these terms intelligible. They refer, bien entendu, to a, presumably chronic, lack of potassium, magnesium and calcium, respectively (the aforementioned lytes). A quick glance at the symptoms of these three conditions suggests to me that they can be relegated to the bottom section of the list of probable causes. Often they result from the use or overuse of prescription medication. I don’t take any.

Now I’m starting to run out of possible causes, and I don’t want to complicate the problem too much. Actually the best advice I’ve read so far on the Wikipedia website is this: Stretching, massage and drinking plenty of fluid, such as water, may be helpful in treating simple muscle cramps. Obviously they don’t include wine as a useful fluid in these circs. That may be my downfall – alcohol tends to dehydrate, which is negative in itself but also seems implicated in cramping. It narrows the blood vessels (hypoxia enfin? the blood vessels oxygenate the muscles don’t they?), which is probably what gives that headachey hungover feeling I sometimes have in the morning. It also causes a build-up of lactic acid, another probable cause of cramping. I’m beginning to feel that a few small adjustments, such as drinking some water before bed-time, avoiding excessive alcohol intake, and keeping the muscles of the lower leg warm (cramping always seems more excruciating in winter) might be enough to solve my problems, which are only minor after all.

So that’ll do me, all that philosophical stuff about the nature of pain will have to wait for another day. I need to hydrate and keep warm, firstly, and I’ll see how that helps as winter is coming.

Written by stewart henderson

April 29, 2017 at 5:53 pm

Posted in fitness, health, pain

Tagged with , ,

three problems with Islamic society, moderate or otherwise

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As a teacher of English to foreign students, I have a lot of dealing with, mostly male, Moslems. I generally get on very well with them. Religion doesn’t come up as an issue, any more than with my Chinese or Vietnamese students. I’m teaching them English, after all. However, it’s my experience of the views of a fellow teacher, very much a moderate Moslem, that has caused me to write this piece, because those views seem to echo much that I’ve read about online and elsewhere.

  1. Homosexuality

It’s well known that in such profoundly Islamic countries as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, there’s zero acceptance of homosexuality, to the point of claiming it doesn’t exist in those countries. Its ‘non-existence’ may be due to that fact that its practice incurs the death penalty (in Saudia Arabia, Yemen, Mauritania, Iran and Sudan), though such penalties are rarely carried out – except, apparently, in Iran. Of course, killing people in large numbers would indicate that there’s a homosexual ‘problem’. In other Moslem countries, homosexuals are merely imprisoned for varying periods. And lest we feel overly superior, take note of this comment from a very informative article in The Guardian:

Statistics are scarce [on arrests and prosecutions in Moslem countries] but the number of arrests is undoubtedly lower than it was during the British wave of homophobia in the 1950s. In England in 1952, there were 670 prosecutions for sodomy, 3,087 for attempted sodomy or indecent assault, and 1,686 for gross indecency.

This indicates how far we’ve travelled in a short time, and it also gives hope that other nations and regions might be swiftly transformed, but there’s frankly little sign of it as yet. Of course the real problem here is patriarchy, which is always and everywhere coupled with homophobia. It’s a patriarchy reinforced by religion, but I think if we in the west were to try to put pressure on these countries and cultures, I think we’d succeed more through criticising their patriarchal attitudes than their religion.

Having said this, it just might be that acceptance of homosexuality among liberal Moslems outside of their own countries (and maybe even inside them) is greater than it seems to be from the vibes I’ve gotten from the quite large numbers of Moslems I’ve met over the years. A poll taken by the Pew Research Centre has surprised me with its finding that 45% of U.S. Moslems accept homosexuality (in 2014, up from 38% in 2007), more than is the case among some Christian denominations, and the movement towards acceptance aligns with a trend throughout the U.S. (and no doubt all other western nations), among religious and non-religious alike. With greater global communication and interaction, the diminution of poverty and the growth of education, things will hopefully improve in non-western countries as well.

2. Antisemitism and the Holocaust

I’ve been shocked to hear, more than once, Moslems blithely denying, or claiming as exaggerated, the events of the Holocaust. This appears to be a recent phenomenon, which obviously bolsters the arguments of many Middle Eastern nations against the Jewish presence in their region. However, it should be pointed out that Egypt’s President Nasser, a hero of the Moslem world, told a German newspaper in 1964 that ‘no person, not even the most simple one, takes seriously the lie of the six million Jews that were murdered [in the Holocaust]’. More recently Iran has become a particular hotspot of denialism, with former President Ahmadinejad making a number of fiery speeches on the issue. Most moderate Islamic organisations, here and elsewhere in the west, present a standard line that the Shoah was exactly as massive and horrific as we know it to be, but questions are often raised about the sincerity of such positions, given the rapid rise of denialism in the Arab world. Arguably, though, this denialism isn’t part of standard anti-semitism. Responding to his own research into holocaust denialism among Israeli Arabs (up from 28% in 2006 to 40% in 2008), Sammy Smooha of Haifa University wrote this:

In Arab eyes disbelief in the very happening of the Shoah is not hate of Jews (embedded in the denial of the Shoah in the West) but rather a form of protest. Arabs not believing in the event of Shoah intend to express strong objection to the portrayal of the Jews as the ultimate victim and to the underrating of the Palestinians as a victim. They deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state that the Shoah gives legitimacy to. Arab disbelief in the Shoah is a component of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, unlike the ideological and anti-Semitic denial of the Holocaust and the desire to escape guilt in the West.

This is an opinion, of course, and may be seen as hair-splitting with respect to anti-semitism, but it’s clear that these counterfactual views aren’t helpful as we try to foster multiculturalism in countries like Australia.They need to be challenged at every turn.

Amcha, the Coalition for Jewish Concerns holds a rally in front of the Iranian Permanent Mission to the United Nations in response to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threats against Isreal and denial of the Holocaust, Monday, March 13, 2006 in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

3. Evolution

While the rejection, and general ignorance, of the Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution – more specifically, natural selection from random variation – may not be the most disturbing feature of Islamic society, it’s the one that most nearly concerns me as a person keen to promote science and critical thinking. I don’t teach evolution of course, but I often touch on scientific topics in teaching academic English. A number of times I’ve had incredulous comments on our relationship to apes (it’s more than a relationship!), and as far as I can recall, they’ve all been from Moslem students. I’ve also come across various websites over the years, by Moslem writers – often academics – from Turkey, India and Pakistan whose anti-evolution and anti-Darwin views degenerate quickly into fanatical hate-filled screeds.

I won’t go into the evidence for natural selection here, or an explanation of the theory, which is essential to all of modern biology. It’s actually quite complex when laid out in detail, and it’s not particularly surprising that even many non-religious people have trouble understanding it. What bothers me is that so many Moslems I’ve encountered don’t make any real attempt to understand the theory, but reject it wholesale for reasons not particularly related to the science. They’ve used the word ‘we’ in rejecting it, so that it’s impossible to even get to first base with them. This raises the question of the teaching of evolution in Moslem schools (and of course, not just Moslem schools), and whether and how much this is monitored. One may argue that non-belief in evolution, like belief in a flat earth or other specious ways of thinking, isn’t so harmful given a general scientific illiteracy which hasn’t stopped those in the know from making great advances, but it’s a problem when being brought up in a particular culture stifles access to knowledge, and even promotes a vehement rejection of that knowledge. We need to get our young people on the right page not in terms of a national curriculum but an evidence-based curriculum for all. Evidence has no national boundaries.

Conclusion – the problem of identity politics

 The term identity politics is used in various ways, but I feel quite clear about my own usage here. It’s when your identity is so wrapped up in a political or cultural or religious or class or caste or professional grouping, that it trumps your own independent critical thinking and analysis. The use of ‘we think’ or ‘we believe’, is the red flag for these attitudes, but of course this usage isn’t always overt or conscious. The best and probably only way to deal with this kind of thinking is through constructive engagement, drawing people out of the groupthink intellectual ghetto through argument, evidence and invitations to reconsider (or consider for the first time) and if that doesn’t work, firmness regarding the evidence-based view together with keeping future lines of communications open. They say you should keep your friends close and your enemies closer, and it’s a piece of wisdom that works on a pragmatic and a humane level. And watch out for that firmness, because the evidence is rarely fixed. Education too is important. As an educator, I find that many students are open to the knowledge I have to offer, and are sometimes animated and inspired by it, regardless of their background. The world’s an amazing place, and students can be captivated by its amazingness, if it’s presented with enthusiasm. That can lead to explorations that can change minds. Schools are, or can be, places where identity politics can fragment as peers from different backgrounds can converge and clash, sometimes in a constructive way. We need to watch for and combat the echo-chamber effect of social media, a new development that often reinforces false and counter-productive ideas – and encourages mean-spirited attacks on faceless adversaries. Breaking down walls and boundaries, rather than constructing them, is the best solution. Real interactions rather than virtual ones, and thinking about the background and humanity of the other before leaping into the fray (I’m beginning to sound saintlier than I’ve ever really been – must be the Ha Ji-won influence!)

Written by stewart henderson

April 19, 2017 at 10:27 am

Recalling romance: the incomparable Ha Ji-won

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a young Ha Ji-won looking determined, in the 2002 comedy/drama Sex is Zero

Canto: Okay, so we’ve been so busy pretending to be sciency savants that we’ve forgotten about the romantic side of this blog…

Jacinta: You’re right, the Urbane Society for Skeptical Romantics must be a confusing name for some, unless they can find some romance in our scientific interests, which would be nice…

Canto: So we’re changing all that by doing occasional pieces on heroines around the world, since we’re both into female supremacy, right?

Jacinta: Okay and you’ve chosen a very romantic heroine first up, and I must say I approve of her wholeheartedly, though I may play devil’s advocate during this dialogue.

Canto: Fine, well I’ve chosen a real people’s heroine, the dazzling Ha Ji-won, from Korea. She’s a hugely successful star of film and television drama, a household name over there, but I’ve picked her for, inter alia, her many portrayals of strong women – from teenage misfits to action heroes to royalty to suburban divorcées, she’s one of those actors who dominate the screen and inspire women everywhere – at least everywhere in Korea – to be feisty and independent, and that’s a fine thing.

Jacinta: Actually I like her because she comes across mostly as a warm and sensitive person, a sort of ‘what the world needs now’ sort of person, but admit it, what’s the real reason you’ve chosen her?

Canto: Ah well, of course it’s purely a romantic one, I’m totally besotted with her and I’m sure my usual razor-sharp judgment has been blunted by my adoration, so you’ll have to provide the skepticism I’m afraid.

Jacinta: Well I’m quite attracted myself I have to say, though I definitely get the impression that girl-girl love, or lust, is much more frowned upon in South Korea than it is here.

Canto: Yes it does strike me as a rather buttoned-up, conservative, class-oriented and overly materialistic society by Australian standards, judging by their movies and dramas, but it’s a dynamic society, and a little more open, I think, than, say, Japanese society, so hopefully this obsession with the ‘right’ education and ‘pedigree’ instead of evident talent will be blown away by outside influences. Actually I think women like Ha Ji-won are contributors to this sort of levelling process. From her various bios I’ve not discovered whether she comes from a privileged background or not – she seems to have made it on ability, hard work and, okay, extreme good looks.

Jacinta: To those in the west who might not be familiar with her, I’d describe her as a sort of blend of Angelina Jolie action figure and a slightly more boyish version of Emma Watson. What do you think?

Canto: Mmmm no, neither of those women come to mind. For a start she’s no statuesque figure, she’s quite slim and slightly built. I don’t really compare her to any western actors – she’s incomparable. She’s definitely a sporty type with energy to burn, and with an independent nature…. It’s fascinating to me that she’s never married, though she’s approaching forty, and still absolutely stunning.

Jacinta: Well, we’ve been doing some background checks, via Google haha, and her private life, at least regarding relationships, is a completely closed book. I get the impression she’s something of a workaholic, with an extraordinary list of performances over twenty years, and a very healthy bank balance with her star having risen so much over the last decade. So what’s she doing with all that loot?

Canto: Are you being skeptical of her outwardly sweet character or just genuinely questioning? Let me first describe her in the most positive light. I doubt that she’s a fitness fanatic or anything, but I think that especially in her earlier roles, once she got established enough to pick and choose, she relished roles that were physically active and often beautiful, I mean physically, in terms of movement and grace. For example in Sex is Zero (2002) she played an aspiring national aerobics champion and went into full training for the role. For the drama Damo (2003) and the film Duellist (2005) she learned how to wield a sword, and for the ultra-energetic sci-fi action flick Sector 7 (2011) she learned scuba diving and other fancy stuff. But perhaps the most impressive thing I’ve read about her dedication to her craft was her months of boxing training for Miracle on First Street (2007), during which she actually got knocked out. There’s a description here of the filming by the director Yoon JeGyoon, which is essentially a heart-felt tribute to Ji-won. It brought tears to my eyes. And so it goes…

duelling with spirits

Jacinta: I can see you’re getting emotional again, mate. I agree with you she’s amazing in that way. And it wasn’t just in her early roles that she was doing all that physical stuff. In Sector 7 and and in the hugely successful Secret Garden (2010), in which she played a stunt-woman, she challenged herself to the utmost. And don’t forget the film As One (2012), in which Ji-won played South Korean table tennis champ Hyun Jung-hwa. We haven’t seen that one but it recreates a very touching event in recent Korean history, when the two Koreas united to form a single table tennis team in 1991, an act of reconciliation after the downing of a passenger plane by North Korea in 1987. It’s a movie all about women and friendship and I’m really really keen to see it. Ji-won had never played table tennis before and trained intensively for four months, though she was recovering from an ankle injury sustained while shooting Sector 7.  She was under the tutorship of Hyun Jung-hwa herself, and was determined to imitate the details of her playing style.

Canto: Yes, that’s a must-see movie. Now, I’m sure that all good actors throw themselves whole-heartedly into their roles, but I’ve never encountered anyone so determined about it as Ha Ji-won. And what I get from all the sources I’ve read is that she virtually never complains and is always smiling and happy on set, always lifting the spirits of those around her. Everyone seems to love working with her, it’s almost sickening.

Jacinta: She’s very demanding of herself, though. She actually tried to drop out of As One because she felt her table tennis ability wasn’t up to scratch and she’d let the whole film down.

Canto: I could talk about her forever, it’s such sheer pleasure. Also I think it’s because contemplating her keeps me young and frisky….

Jacinta: You’re only as young as the one you love. Shame she doesn’t speak your language. Do you think she’d be into science?

Canto: Mmmm. An important question. I note from her bios  that she’s not religious, that’s a good start. I’m sure she’d be open to it. It’s not just wishful thinking to believe she’s a very smart cookie…

Jacinta: I agree with you there – she’s been very smart about her career, having the foresight to see, once established, the kind of roles that would challenge her and excite an audience. Even though that foresight may well be largely unconscious…

Canto: I think she scores very high on EQ, emotional quotient, if that’s a thing. That’s what gives her the rapport she has with the team around her, and with her fans. She knows how to deal with people without even knowing how she knows how. She’s just a natural. Here’s an example. In this café interview (I can’t find it now – she’s done so many!), she’s asked by a young paparazzi type ‘There’s one question I need to ask you: when did you start to be so pretty?’. So Ha Ji-won’s face turns serious as this question begins to unfold: she’s expecting something heavy, then when it turns out to be frivolous, you can see her serious face registering it, after which she falls forward with a laugh, putting her hand over her face. Totally spontaneous and endearing, and much better than how I might’ve been tempted to react, i.e. with scorn. Then, quickly recovering, she answers with disarming truthfulness, ‘when I was born’, after which she breaks into embarrassed laughter again, as if she’d been immodest. But of course she was correct, she was born pretty, that’s to say very lucky, and she knows it. And she managed to convey that, and yet to keep everything good-humoured and light. Maybe it’s nothing, but I think it’s a kind of genius she has.

Jacinta: You’re in a bad way, mate. Tell me when they ask her some more interesting questions. So do you recommend any of her work?

Canto: Well I’m just exploring what’s available on YouTube, some of which is of poor film quality, and some of which is either poorly translated or not translated at all, especially her earliest stuff – and I want to trace her career from the beginning. So, yes, I’ve become addicted to Ha Ji-won, I’ve chosen her as my guardian angel and guiding spirit – I’ve even thought of dedicating a new blog just to her – but that might be a bit excessive….

Jacinta: Maybe a bit, but whatever floats your boat. Back to my question – any work you would recommend?

Canto: I’m not sure I’ve seen her best work yet, but the film ‘Miracle of a giving fool’ (2008), also known as ‘BA:BO’, has a lovely understated performance from her. A nice intro, though maybe not, as it doesn’t give much indication of her capabilities. The TV series ‘Damo’ (2003) might be better, but I’m having trouble finding a fully translated version. Horse-riding and swordplay aplenty. Anyway, she’s a wonderful woman, an inspiration, and I think you need to see a lot of her work – depth in diversity is her greatest achievement.

spreading the love


Written by stewart henderson

April 14, 2017 at 12:41 pm

Posted in feminism, health, modesty, power, romance

Tagged with , ,

the strange world of the self-described ‘open-minded’ – part three, Apollo

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In 2009, a poll held by the United Kingdom’s Engineering & Technology magazine found that 25% of those surveyed did not believe that men landed on the Moon. Another poll gives that 25% of 18- to 25-year-olds surveyed were unsure that the landings happened. There are subcultures worldwide which advocate the belief that the Moon landings were faked. By 1977 the Hare Krishna magazine Back to Godhead called the landings a hoax, claiming that, since the Sun is 93,000,000 miles away, and “according to Hindu mythology the Moon is 800,000 miles farther away than that”, the Moon would be nearly 94,000,000 miles away; to travel that span in 91 hours would require a speed of more than a million miles per hour, “a patently impossible feat even by the scientists’ calculations.”

From ‘Moon landing conspiracy theories’ , Wikipedia

Time magazine cover, December 1968

Haha just for the record the Sun is nearly 400 times further from us than the Moon, but who’s counting? So now to the Apollo moon missions, and because I don’t want this exploration to extend to a fourth part, I’ll be necessarily but reluctantly brief. They began in 1961 and ended in 1975, and they included manned and unmanned space flights (none of them were womanned).

But… just one more general point. While we may treat it as inevitable that many people prefer to believe in hoaxes and gazillion-dollar deceptions, rather than accept facts that are as soundly evidence-based as their own odd existences, it seems to me a horrible offence in this case (as in many others), both to human ingenuity and to the enormous cost in terms, not only of labour spent but of lives lost. So we need to fight this offensive behaviour, and point people to the evidence, and not let them get away with their ignorance.

The Apollo program was conceived in 1960 during Eisenhower’s Presidency, well before Kennedy’s famous mission statement. It was given impetus by Soviet successes in space. It involved the largest commitment of financial and other resources in peacetime history. The first years of research, development and testing involved a number of launch vehicles, command modules and lunar modules, as well as four possible ‘mission modes’. The first of these modes was ‘direct ascent’, in which the spacecraft would be launched and operated as a single unit. Finally, after much analysis, debate and lobbying, the mode known as Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) was adopted. The early phases of the program were dogged by technical problems, developmental delays, personal clashes and political issues, including the Cuban missile crisis. Kennedy’s principal science advisor, Jerome Weisner, was solidly opposed to manned missions.

I can’t give a simple one-by-one account of the missions, as the early unmanned missions weren’t simply named Apollo 1, 2 etc. They were associated strongly with the Saturn launch vehicles, and the Apollo numbering system we now recognise was only established in April 1967. The Apollo 4 mission, for example, is also known as AS-501, and was the first unmanned test flight of the Saturn 5 launcher (later used for the Apollo 11 launch). Three Apollo/Saturn unmanned missions took place in 1966 using the Saturn 1B launch vehicle.

The manned missions had the most tragic of beginnings, as is well known. On January 27 1967 the three designated astronauts for the AS-204 spaceflight, which they themselves had renamed Apollo 1 to commemorate the first manned flight of the program, were asphyxiated when a fire broke out during a rehearsal test. No further attempt at a manned mission was made until October of 1968. In fact, the whole program was grounded after the accident for ‘review and redesign’ with an overall tightening of hazardous procedures. In early 1968, the Lunar Module was given its first unmanned flight (Apollo 5). The flight was delayed a number of times due to problems and inexperience in constructing such a module. The test run wasn’t entirely successful, but successful enough to clear the module for future manned flights. The following, final unmanned mission, Apollo 6, suffered numerous failures, but went largely unnoticed due to the assassination of Martin Luther King on the day of the launch. However, its problems helped NASA to apply fixes which improved the safety of all subsequent missions.

And so we get to the first successful manned mission, Apollo 7. Its aim was to test the Apollo CSM (Command & Service Module) in low Earth orbit, and it put American astronauts in space for the first time in almost two years. It was also the first of the three-man missions and the first to be broadcasted from within the spaceship. Things went very well in technical terms, a relief to the crew, who were only given this opportunity due to the deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts. There were some minor tensions between the astronauts and ground staff, due to illness and some of the onboard conditions. They spent 11 days in orbit and space food, though on the improve, was far from ideal.

Apollo 8, launched only two months later in December, was a real breakthrough, a truly bold venture, as described in Earthrise, an excellent documentary of the mission made in 2005 (the astronauts were the first to witness Earthrise from the Moon). The aim, clearly, was to create a high-profile event designed to capture the world’s attention, and to eclipse the Soviets. As the documentary points out, the Soviets had stolen the limelight in the space race – ‘the first satellite, the first man in orbit, the first long duration flight, the first dual capsule flights, the first woman in space, the first space walk’. Not to mention the first landing of a human-built craft on the Moon itself.

One of the world’s most famous photos, Earthrise, taken by astronaut William Anders on Christmas Eve, 1968

The original aim of the mission was to test the complete spacecraft, including the lunar module, in Earth orbit, but when the lunar module was declared unready, a radical change of plan was devised, involving an orbit of the Moon without the lunar module. Apollo 8 orbited the Moon ten times at close quarters (110 kms above the surface) over a period of 20 hours. During the orbit they made a Christmas Eve telecast, the most watched program ever, up to that time. Do yourself a favour and watch the doco. The commentary of the astronaut’s wives are memorable, and put the moon hoaxers’ offensiveness in sharp relief.
By comparison to Apollo 8 the Apollo 9 mission (March ’69) was a modest affair, if that’s not too insulting. This time the complete spacecraft for a Moon landing was tested in low Earth orbit, and everything went off well, though space walking proved problematic, as it often had before for both American and Soviet astronauts, due to space sickness and other problems. With Apollo 10 (May ’69) the mission returned to the Moon in a full dress rehearsal of the Apollo 11 landing. The mission created some interesting records, including the fastest speed ever reached by a manned vehicle (39,900 kms/hour during the return flight from the Moon) and the greatest distance from home ever travelled by humans (due to the Moon’s elliptical orbit, and the fact that the USA was on the ‘far side of the Earth’ when the astronauts were on the far side of the Moon).

I’ll pass by the celebrated Apollo 11 mission, which I can hardly add anything to, and turn to the missions I know less – that’s to say almost nothing – about.

Apollo 12, launched in November 1969, was a highly successful mission, in spite of some hairy moments due to lightning strikes at launch. It was, inter alia, a successful exercise in precision targeting, as it landed a brief walk away from the Surveyor 3 probe, sent to the Moon two and a half years earlier. Parts of the probe were taken back to Earth.

The Apollo 13 mission has, for better or worse, come to be the second most famous of all the Apollo missions. It was the only aborted mission of those intended to land on the Moon. An oxygen tank exploded just over two days after launch in April 1970, and just before entry into the Moon’s gravitational sphere. This directly affected the Service Module, and it was decided to abort the landing. There were some well-documented hairy moments and heroics, but the crew managed to return safely. Mea culpa, I’ve not yet seen the movie!

Apollo 14, launched at the end of January 1971, also had its glitches but landed successfully. The astronauts collected quite a horde of moon rocks and did the longest moonwalk ever recorded. Alan Shepard, the mission commander, added his Moon visit to the accolade of being the first American in space ten years earlier. At 47, he’s the oldest man to have stepped on the Moon. The Apollo 15 mission was the first of the three ‘J missions’, involving a longer stay on the Moon. With each mission there were improvements in instrumentation and capability. The most well-known of these was the Lunar Roving Vehicle, first used on Apollo 15, but that mission also deployed a gamma-ray spectrometer, a mass spectrometer and a laser altimeter to study the Moon’s surface in detail from the command module. Apollo 16 was another successful mission, in which the geology of the Moon’s surface was the major focus. Almost 100kgs of rock were collected, and it was the first mission to visit the ‘lunar highlands’. The final mission, Apollo 17, was also the longest Moon stay, longest moonwalks in total, largest samples, and longest lunar orbit. And so the adventure ended, with high hopes for the future.

I’ve given an incredibly skimpy account, and I’ve mentioned very few names, but there’s a ton of material out there, particularly on the NASA site of course, and documentaries aplenty, many of them a powerful and stirring reminder of those heady days. Some 400,000 technicians, engineers, administrators and other service personnel worked on the Apollo missions, many of them working long hours, experiencing many frustrations, anxieties, and of course thrills. I have to say, as an internationalist by conviction, I’m happy to see that space exploration has become more of a collaborative affair in recent decades, and may that collaboration continue, defying the insularity and mindless nationalism we’ve been experiencing recently.

a beautiful image of the International Space Station, my favourite symbol of global cooperation

Finally, to the moon hoaxers and ‘skeptics’. What I noticed on researching this – I mean it really was obvious – was that in the comments to the various docos I watched on youtube, they had nothing to say about the science and seemed totally lacking in curiosity. It was all just parroted, and ‘arrogant’ denialism. The science buffs, on the other hand, were full of dizzy geekspeak on technical fixes, data analysis and potential for other missions, e.g. to Mars. In any case I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this little trip into the Apollo missions and the space race, in which I’ve learned a lot more than I’ve presented here.

Written by stewart henderson

March 19, 2017 at 4:42 pm