an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

What is yeast?

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Canto: So we’re going to explore yeast now, for practical purposes. Using a bread machine, I’ve been trying to make, not so much a perfect loaf as an edible one. With beginner’s luck, my first loaf turned out as perfect as this little machine made it, but that has been followed by three failures.

Jacinta: To be fair, none of those failures was inedible, they just didn’t rise satisfactorily.

Canto: Yes, to varying degrees, and the principal and perhaps only culprit, I suspect, was the yeast.

Jacinta: So we need more detail, and then we’ll investigate yeast.

Canto: So I followed the instructions – first some 200-250 mls of lukewarm water, then some butter, salt, sugar, then some prepared flour for a linseed loaf, then some ‘bread improver’, then yeast, all in correct proportions according to a recipe, into the pan of the bread machine, switch to the desired setting, and after 4.5 hours approximately, out came a pretty-well perfect loaf. So, it can be done.

Jacinta: Proof of bread machine concept perhaps, but the experiment needs to be replicated. I believe that in science this doesn’t happen enough, because there’s little kudos in replicating someone else’s experiment – or, in this case, even your own. 

Canto: Well, although I cannot live on bread alone, my desire to replicate the experiment was definitely based on my stomach. So my next effort was perhaps a week later, and I repeated all the steps, or so I believed, but what came out was a shrivelled, concentrated lump. More or less edible as you say, but far from optimal. In fact, a failure. So I went back over my steps and realised I’d forgotten to warm the water. I was thinking the yeast, which I’d taken from the fridge, might’ve needed some warming to get started. 

Jacinta: Well, that’s a hypothesis. So what about the next attempt?

Canto: Well, to be honest, I didn’t try again for some months. But what with the state being in lockdown recently, out of sheer boredom, more or less, I tried again. This time I did all the required steps correctly… well, not quite – I forgot the bread improver.

Jacinta: And I told you it wasn’t a really necessary ingredient, though now I’m not so sure. 

Canto: Yes, because this effort was the most disastrous. The bread didn’t really rise at all – it was flat as a very dense pancake. Or not quite – it was about an inch and a half thick – about as compressed as all those ingredients could be. And that was when I really started thinking about yeast. I’d used the same yeast, from a package I’d opened before the first bread-making attempt. I couldn’t see any use-by date, and I knew that yeast was some kind of living organism. Maybe it was now dead yeast? 

Jacinta: Right. Are we ready to explore yeast in a general way now? 

Canto: Well not quite. So I tried again, this time using a new yeast package – vacuum sealed, but kept in the fridge. So, cold. I did it all correctly this time, but again without the bread improver. Need to know what ‘bread improver’ actually is. Anyway, it kind of half-worked, it definitely rose, but only by half of the tin. So, either the cold state of the yeast, or its only half-aliveness, perhaps, or the lack of bread improver, was responsible. More experiments required. 

Jacinta: Right. And again, the last experiment did result in edible, indeed tasty bread, but a little too compressed. Which brings us to yeast, which is a single-celled egg-shaped fungus, Saccharomyces Cerevisiae (‘sugar-eating fungus’). There are some 20 billion cells in a gram of yeast. These cells derive their energy from the consumption of sugars – remembering that you’ve added brown sugar to the mix (but maybe not enough?), and there is sugar in the pre-mixed linseed flour that you used. Flour contains maltose, a kind of starch, which binds two glucose molecules together. It’s important in brewing. So when the yeast consumes the sugars in your mix, it releases useful end products, such as carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol. The released carbon dioxide gas becomes trapped in the dough and causes bubbles, which expand as the CO continues to be released, causing the dough to rise. And according to my source:

The ethyl alcohol (and other compounds) produced during fermentation produce the typical flavor and aroma of yeast-leavened breads.

Canto: I haven’t particularly noticed this aroma, but the mention of fermentation is interesting.

Jacinta: Yes, Louis Pasteur did a lot of work on fermentation, in the narrow sense of the byproducts, or end-products, of yeast activity, for example noting that carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol weren’t the only by-products, and it was later also found that other glucose-consuming organisms and tissues, for example muscle tissue, also engage in a form of fermentation, which we call glycolysis. 

Canto: Right, so there are many types of yeast – for example ‘baker’s yeast’ and ‘brewer’s yeast’. 

Jacinta: Oh yes, there are many forms of Saccharomyces Cerevisiae, the general term for both brewers and bakers. It’s a good source of B vitamins (but not B12), and it’s a favourite ‘superfood’ for those who believe in such things…

Canto: Okay, what is ‘bread improver’?

Jacinta: Well, it’s more yeast. And according to one site: 

It usually also contains emulsifiers, which help to make the loaf soft and fluffy. It may also contain an enzyme which can improve the texture of the bread as well as help it to last longer, or asorbic acid (vitamin C), which can help the dough to rise.  

So it’s likely that using the bread improver would help. Make sure you use it next time. Although  observing use-by dates is probably important for these things. There’s of course a lot more to say about the biochemistry of yeast and the processes of glycolysis and fermentation, and their importance for the energy pathways of all sorts of organisms including humans, but that’s the thing. You start with one simple question and it eventually leads you to how the whole world works. Or at least the living world. But that leads you eventually to the non-living, matter and all that matters. So that’s enough for now.

References

What is Yeast?

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/maltose

https://www.britannica.com/science/fermentation

https://www.healthline.com/health/brewers-yeast#side-effects

https://www.bestrecipes.com.au/baking/articles/bread-improver/xpkotf0j

Written by stewart henderson

July 30, 2021 at 11:51 am

Posted in bread, glycolysis, yeast

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a bonobo world 62: more species, and then back to the point of it all

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male aggression – it’s everywhere

Canto: Okay, let’s look at other cetaceans. There are 89 species, so we can’t cover them all. There are toothed and baleen types, but all dolphins and porpoises are toothed. There are river dolphins and oceanic dolphins, and in terms of size, cetaceans range widely, so that we have names like northern right whale dolphin, southern right whale dolphin, false killer whale, pygmy killer whale and various types of humpback dolphin as well the humpback whale. So it might be that they’re as culturally various as humans. I’ll limit my examination, then, to four or five well-known species, with no pretence that any of them typify the whole.

Jacinta: Yes, when we talked about dolphins before, it was the common bottle-nose dolphin, right?

Canto: Essentially yes, and I’ll pick some of the best known cetaceans, avoiding those most endangered, because they’ll probably be the least studied in the wild. First, the humpback whale, which is a rorqual. Rorquals represent the largest group of baleen whales, and of course humpback whales are an iconic and fairly well researched species, as whales go. And one immediately interesting fact is that the females are on average slightly larger than the males.

Jacinta: Size usually matters.

Canto: And they can live up to 100 years. But let’s talk about sex, or courtship as the Wikipedia article on humpbacks charmingly describes it. You’ll be happy to know that humpbacks are polyandrous – that’s to say, females mate with many males during their breeding season. This is generally seen as the opposite of polygyny – one male mating with many females. In fact polyandry is more often seen in insects than in any other life forms. Humpbacks have even been known to have it off with other species. Wikipedia calls it hybridisation. There’s apparently a humpback-blue whale hybrid out there.

Jacinta: I assure you that when females rule the world – in nevereverland – any attempt to employ ‘euphemisms’ for fucking will be punished by instant castration.

Canto: Well you’ll also be amused to know that males fight over females.

Jacinta: How very unsurprising. But at least they sing, which almost compensates.

Canto: Yes, males and females vocalise, but the long, complex and very loud songs are produced by males. It’s believed that they help to produce estrus in the females.

Jacinta: The correct term is fuck-readiness. 

Canto: In fact, researchers only think that because only males produce the complex songs. It’s a reasonable inference, but it could be wrong. Some think that the songs might be used to prove the male’s virility to the female, to make him more attractive. This supposedly happens with birdsong too.

Jacinta: Trying to think of human equivalents. Rocks in the jocks?

Canto: Oh no, too chafing. Being a good cook helps, I’ve found. But what with the obesity epidemic, that’s a balancing act. Anyway, those humpback boys put a lot of energy into their songs, which sometimes last for over 24 hours. Animals of one population, which can be very large, sing the same culturally transmitted song, which slowly changes over time. All interesting, but probably not much of a model for us. I can barely swim.

Jacinta: Well yes, it’s hardly sing or swim for us, but let’s turn to other cetaceans. What about blue whales?

Canto: Well it’s interesting to find that most websites don’t even mention their social life – it’s all about their ginormity, their big hearts, and their feeding and digestion. It took me a while to discover that they’re solitary creatures, which I suppose is common sense. Hard to imagine a superpod of blue whales out in search of a collective meal. They do sometimes gather in small groups, presumably for sex, and of course there’s a mother-calf relationship until maturity. As with humpbacks, the females are a bit larger than the males. What would that be about?

Jacinta: Well, some researchers (see link below) have discovered that male humpbacks favour the largest females, so there’s presumably sexual selection going on. And of course, they fight over the biggest females.

Canto: Well you can’t blame them for being macho. It be nature, and what do please gods.

Jacinta: Oh no, let’s not go there. Anyway, the largest females produce the largest and presumably healthiest offspring. They also found that the older females make the best mothers, which I’m sure is generally the case in humans too, mutatis mutandis. 

Canto: So in conclusion, these mostly solitary creatures, whether they be cetaceans or primates, can’t be said to be patriarchal or matriarchal, but the males still manage to be more violent, or at least more cross with each other, than the females.

Jacinta: But it doesn’t have to be that way, hence bonobos.

Canto: Yes, but that makes me think. I hear that bonobos use sex to ‘ease tensions’, among other things. Tensions hints of violence, or at least anger. I’m wondering if that anger comes mostly from the males, and if the use of sex to dissipate that anger comes mostly from the females.

Jacinta: That’s a good question. There’s a site, linked below, which sort of looks at that question. It cites research showing that female bonobos gang up on male aggressors. The researchers found an absence of female-on-female aggression (perhaps less so than in the human world). According to this site – which may not be wholly reliable, as it’s really about humans and nightlife behaviour – female bonobos bond in small groups for the specific purpose of keeping males in line. How do they know that? They might be arguing from girl nightlife behaviour. I mean, who’s zoomin who?

Canto: The general point though is that among bonobos, males are more aggressive than females. Which isn’t to say that females can’t be aggressive, and not just in a defensive way.

Jacinta: This website also mentions something which is the general point of all our conversations on bonobos and humans and sex and well-being. It’s worth quoting in full:

Anthropological data analyzed by neuropsychologist James Prescott suggests societies that are more sexually open are also less likely to be violent. The key to understanding this correlation, however, is that it’s the society as a whole that is more sexually open and not just a small percentage of individuals.

Canto: That’s a good quote to get us back to humans. We need to look at this matter more closely next time. And the next and the next.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cetaceans

https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna29187881

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_whale

https://www.upworthy.com/female-bonobos-shut-down-violent-males-heres-what-humans-can-learn-from-them

Written by stewart henderson

July 26, 2021 at 8:13 pm

a bonobo world 61 or so: some more species

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Gibbons – beautiful and imperilled

Canto: So if only we could quicken the modern world, which is so fast leaving behind the benefits of brute strength and embracing the strength of collaborative smarts… Well, maybe not that fast… We’d experience ourselves the loving fruits of bonobo-humanism.

Jacinta: Yeah, too bad. So let’s look more closely at other female dominated species, like elephants. They tend to value experience, so their family units have a female head.

Canto: Except that, they split into female and male groups, don’t they?

Jacinta: Well, they have these female family units, ranging from 3 to 25 members. The males presumably have their groupings, but sometimes they come together to form large herds or herd aggregations – huge numbers. Males can also be solitary, which virtually never happens with females. Of course it’s the females who raise the young, but there can be a lot of group solidarity.

Canto: It seems that the grouping changes more or less perpetually, seasonally, daily, hourly.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s a fission-fusion society, common among primates too – such as Homo sapiens at work, school, uni etc. But over time, the matriarch becomes more important, and presides over a wider network as she gets older. They play follow the leader as she has accumulated knowledge on the best watering holes, the paths of least resistance.

Canto: So elephants have it all worked out. What about those orangutans, what’s going on there?

Jacinta: Well apart from imminent extinction, there’s little to say. They’re solitary, though the Sumatran orang-utans are a little less so than those in Borneo, due to more food being available. The males exhibit hostility to each other and try to avoid each other, though they’re not territorial. They only hang out with females until they get their end away, and the females raise the offspring until they’re old enough to go solo.

Canto: So I wonder why the males are so much bigger than the females?

Jacinta: Yes they can be well over twice the size of the females. I haven’t found any explanation for it. They don’t have a harem of females to prove their rugged manliness. Apparently those big cheek pads help to attract the girls, but their huge bulk seems a bit superfluous.

Canto: Maybe it’s like whales – they grow big because they can. But then, the more you grow, the more you have to eat, presumably. A bit of a mug’s game.

Jacinta: Tell that to the elephants. Or those old ginorosauruses. Basically, if you’re as huge as an elephant, who else is going to attack you or compete with you? Apart from blokes with guns. But we were talking about sex. Or at least gender. Gorillas are proving a lot more complex than originally thought in their social structure – quite multilayered, not quite the chest-beating alpha male and his harem, more like human extended families. Matriarchies within patriarchies perhaps.

Canto: And what about gibbons – just to round out the primates. I know nothing about them.

Jacinta: Well, apparently these South-East Asian apes are monogamous, unlike other primates (except maybe humans, but I’m reluctant to rule on that). In fact only 3% of mammals are monogamous, according to a fact sheet I found (linked below). So that makes for family groups of two to six, just like our nuclear family, unless you’re a Catholic. Gibbons are considered as ‘lesser apes’, family Hylobatidae, unlike we great apes, family Hominidae. Physically, they’re by far the smallest of the apes, depending on particular species, but weighing at most about 12 kgs. These small family groups defend their territory aggressively – none of this fission-fusion stuff. They’re quite good at bipedalism, and present a good model for bipedalism in humans, but they’re also fantastically acrobatic tree-swingers, with the longest arms in relation to their bodies of any of the primates. They also have a nice healthy herbivorous diet.

Canto: They sound like a good human model all-round, and maybe a model for gender equality?

Jacinta: Well, yes, but I do prefer female supremacy. Gibbons are apparently the least studied of all the apes. There are 12 species of them, but many species are very near extinction, a fact not much known by the general public. Orangutans clearly get much more attention.

Canto: Okay so let’s look further afield – before coming back to human cultures to see if there are any matriarchies worth emulating. What more do we know about dolphins and other cetaceans?

Jacinta: Well, as you know dolphins live together in pods of up to 30, though sometimes where there’s an abundant food source they can form massive superpods of over 1000. And as we’ve learned, they engage in sex for fun.

Canto: I suppose also they could form superpods in the face of predators, like schools of fish.

Jacinta: Yes, possibly, though they wouldn’t have too many predators, unlike small fish. Interestingly these superpods can be made up of different cetacean species, so this would obviously benefit the smaller species. And individual dolphins can switch from pod to pod quite freely. Something like fission-fusion, but with greater flexibility. Researchers find this flexibility a sign of high intelligence.

Canto: Ahh, so that accounts for the stupidity of conservatives.

Jacinta: Some dolphin species are a bit more hierarchical than others, and you can see plenty of bite marks on bottlenose dolphins, evidence of fights for dominance.

Canto: And I recall a big hubbub a few years ago when those delightful creatures were discovered torturing and killing some of their own. But then, they are male-dominated, aren’t they?

Jacinta: They are, sadly. Males of all species are largely arseholes (well, not literally). But they certainly engage in a lot of play, I mean dolphins generally. Maybe they’ll evolve one day into a higher form of female-dominated life, but I doubt it. They’ll have to realise how fucked-up they are as a species to do that, like some humans have realised – but not enough.

Canto: Okay, so dolphins are out as a model. What about other cetaceans? I somehow suspect that orcas won’t fit the bill.

Jacinta: Next time. And we’ll look at some human models, if we can find them.

References

https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/six-facts-about-elephant-families-9015298.html

https://seaworld.org/animals/all-about/orangutans/behavior/

https://orangutanfoundation.org.au/how-big-do-orangutans-get-learn-about-the-biology-of-the-orangutan/

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/07/gorillas-have-developed-humanlike-social-structure-controversial-study-suggests

http://www.gibbons.de/main2/08teachtext/factgibbons/gibbonfact.html

Dolphin Social Structure

 

Written by stewart henderson

July 22, 2021 at 7:50 pm

a bonobo world 60?: sex, gender and other species

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matriarchs in a complex society

Jacinta: So we need to talk about sex. Though of course bonobos never talk about it.

Canto: Yes, bonobos appear to have sex to calm each other down, and perhaps just for fun or because they’re bored.

Jacinta: I prefer to read books. It’s all about sublimation, they say.

Canto: Ahh sublimation. We had a lot of Freudian stuff around the house when I was a lad. So eros and thanatos, the superego and the id, polymorphous perversity and the Oedipus complex, these were some of the first smart-alecky terms I ever learned. And sublimation was a big favourite. The idea that all our creative and scientific activities were just a way of channelling or subverting the massive force of our sex drive seemed perfectly coherent to a horny teenager. I thought I’d found the secret of life – just stop channelling and subverting, get our perversity back to being unimorphous, and the life of sexual bliss would be ours.

Jacinta: Yeah – I don’t know where to begin. Humans have created effective theories about the universe, about species diversity, about nanoscale quantum behaviour and whatnot – I mean, would we ever have developed the means to have this conversation if we’d never managed to separate our brains from our genitals?

Canto: Okay, back to bonobos. Of course sex doesn’t completely dominate their lives, but what makes them so attractive to many of is the fact that they’re so relaxed about it. I blame religion.

Jacinta: Hmmm, but it’s entirely possible to have a religion that’s pretty relaxed about sex.

Canto: Okay, I blame those religions that are not relaxed about sex – that’s to say, most religions that have dominated our species, at least recently.

Jacinta: Well, my question is, can we as a species ever evolve to be as relaxed about sex as bonobos, without giving up on fully understanding or exploring life, the universe and everything?

Canto: Ah but, though it might be true that we are but one species, we’re tremendously diverse. There are doubtless many individual humans that are just as relaxed and free about sex as bonobos, and even the odd sub-culture that takes sex far further than any bonobo ever would.

Jacinta: Well, no doubt, but they tend to be underground – in dungeons with leather, chains and whips. Weekend fun, and then back to the office on Monday. We tend to cut sexual play off from the rest of our activities, if we engage in it at all. That’s not the bonobo way.

Canto: Well, even bonobos probably recognise there’s a time for every purpose, under heaven. But apart from the problems of sex in the workplace and the school playground, there’s also the interesting question of the relationship between bonobo sexual activity and the prominent role of females. Presumably that’s not coincidental. Do you think our sexual sides will get more airplay with the coming matriarchy?

Jacinta: Well, male societies seem to be more aggressively controlling. And more hierarchical. Controlling the females would’ve been a priority from the start. Making them feel inferior and dirty during menses, taking advantage of their reduced capacity during late pregnancy and the postpartum period, when they’d be reduced to ‘menial chores’, which would gradually – since they performed them so well – be seen as the chores they were designed for. And so the division of labour would result in more hierarchy.

Canto: And with bonobos female supremacy, if that’s not too strong a word, seems to have been the result of female-female bonding. Hard to know how that got started, but I imagine that the move, in humans, to separate unit housing and nuclear families would’ve militated against such bonding. And with bonobo promiscuity, males wouldn’t know which children were theirs, if any. One of the major purposes of human monogamy, I presume, would be to ensure that males would know who their children were, for patrilineal purposes, among others.

Jacinta: Yes, and certainly monogamy is still very much the norm, though it has become slightly less patriarchal in the wealthier economies. I do think the key to women getting on top is sisterhood, but not an exclusive sisterhood. We need to encourage men to realise that it’s in their interest to join us, and do what we tell them to do. But really we’ve got a long way to go. Men have been dominant for a very long time, and they still are.

Canto: There’s also the blowback from feminism. Men with guns, proud boys, oath keepers and shitkickers. And men who have been ‘stiffed’, according to the book by Susan Faludi.

Jacinta: Yes, men who feel their purpose in life has been shattered because their kids’ school principal is a woman. It depresses me to think about the enormity of the challenge, when female leadership seems so obviously superior by and large, and yet this superiority is so regularly denied.

Canto: This is an interesting question. Women generally talk about gender equality, while men – some men – worry about women taking over, as if we’re anywhere near that happening. But actually gender equality isn’t a thing among our primate cousins – that’s to say, chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orang-utangs and gibbons. They’re either female-dominant, like bonobos, or male-dominant, like more or less all the rest. And if you look at the multifarious human cultures, its probably the same thing – 99% patriarchal, 1% matriarchal, 0% gender-equal. It’s a bit like a see-saw, the guys at each end are virtually never exactly the same weight, so the see-saw has almost zero chance of being equally balanced.

Jacinta: So, might as well be honest and go for female supremacy. But maybe we should look more closely at your claim, and we don’t have to limit ourselves to primate examples. Take dolphins, for example. We’ve had huge difficulties in studying them, gender-wise, because it’s so hard to tell the sexes apart. All they’ve been able to find is that male dolphins tend to range more widely from the pod than females, which doesn’t appear to say anything about dominance.

Canto: Hmmm. Isn’t that the same with cats – I mean the domesticated types? The males range more widely at night, presumably for sexual purposes.

Jacinta: Males chase, females choose? It’s a thought. Anyway, elephants are essentially matriarchal, and as to birds, some species of which are now regarded as having smarts that are up there with the smartest monkeys, many of them seem to fit the bill for gender equality, but they’re maybe too far removed from us to provide us with too much guidance.

Canto: Well, hang on a minute. Corvids are a super-social lot, with a lot of extended family support in bringing up chicks, warning of danger and so on.

Jacinta: Yes but elephants are at least mammals, and they also live in extended families, and what with the obesity epidemic, we’re beginning to look more like them.

Canto: Okay, so next time we’ll talk about gender roles in other species, particularly primates, at least for starters. That’ll allow us to avoid the sticky subject of sex for a while longer.

References

https://www.simplypsychology.org/Sigmund-Freud.html

9 of the Biggest Lies Christianity Tells Us About Sex and Marriage

Susan Faludi, Stiffed: The betrayal of the modern man, 1999

https://phys.org/news/2016-06-world-dolphin-gender.html

https://www.elephantvoices.org/elephant-sense-a-sociality-4/elephants-are-socially-complex.html

 

Written by stewart henderson

July 20, 2021 at 2:35 pm

on voting and democracy in the USA: some history and some problems

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Congratulations, Germany wins

I try not to be anti-USA, but it’s hard sometimes. Lately I’ve been hearing that old chestnut, the American Experiment, being promulgated by Joe Biden among others. And the other day I was negatively energised by the lawyer and political pundit Jeremy Bash, who spoke of the US as the greatest democracy the world has ever known, or words to that effect. By ‘greatest democracy’ he also no doubt meant ‘greatest nation’, since we all quote the mantra that democracy is the worst political system apart from all the others. But to describe nation x as the greatest nation in the world is just as puerile as saying that person x is the greatest person in the world. There are no objective measures for such things. Such remarks highlight what I’ve written before about ‘American exceptionalism’. United Staters are exceptional only in their religiosity and their jingoism, which doesn’t augur well for having exceptional self-critical capacities.

But to return to democracy talk. The ‘American experiment’ idea, never quite made explicit, is that modern democracy is a US invention, a form of Enlightenment that they’ve been trying to spread to a largely reluctant world. The facts tell a different story.

The US declared independence from Britain in 1776, but of course the new country was full of British ex-pats and Britain was still a major influence. I’ve heard more than one US pundit speak about their fight against a tyrant king, George III. Not quite true. Britain in 1776 had been a constitutional monarchy for more than 80 years, with a Prime Minister, Frederick North (Lord North), elected under an extremely limited franchise. Britain had executed a tyrant king, Charles I, in the 1640s, and had chased another one out of the country in the 1680s. The country experimented with the first parliamentary system in the 1650s under a Lord Protector (something like a Presidency), Oliver Cromwell. Anyone who has studied the British civil war of the 1640s will be aware of how politically savvy and committed the general populace was at that time.

The War of Independence ended well for the potential new nation, which was undeniably being tyrannised by Britain. Powerful countries or states tend to tyrannise smaller ones. This occurred, obviously, during Britain’s imperial period, and it occurred in the USA’s treatment of the Phillippines, Nicaragua and Vietnam. That is why we need more collaborative international peace-keeping, with no single nation being allowed to consider itself or to behave as the world’s police officer.

So when the potential new nation came to consider its form of government, it looked largely to the ‘mother country’, bad mother though it had turned out to be. Even Magna Carta, seen through an eighteenth century lens, had an influence on the US Constitution and state legislatures. However, the most important British reference was their 1689 Bill of Rights, inspired (to a much-debated degree) by the political philosophy of John Locke. This important document has provided a template for many national constitutions, including that of the USA. The US founding fathers were also much influenced by a contemporary firebrand, Britisher Tom Paine, whose 1776 pamphlet Common Sense became something of a sensation. Pressures against traditional tyrannies, such as absolute monarchies and aristocratic oligarchies, were growing throughout Europe in the late eighteenth century in response to ideas expressed in Rousseau’s The Social Contract and Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, among other works.

My point here is not to deny the experiment in modern democracy of the founding fathers and their collaborators. My argument is that this wasn’t the first experiment, nor was it by any means an experiment in full democracy. It was just one of many baby steps toward the full adult franchise that many democratic nations enjoy today. The 1789 election which brought George Washington, unopposed, to the presidency gave the vote to white property-owning men only – somewhere between 6% and 7% of the population. Women weren’t given the right to vote nationally until 1920, after decades of struggle. The Snyder Act of 1924 gave Native United Staters the ‘right to vote’, but left the final decision to state legislatures, leading to a fifty-year struggle to have that right fully established nationwide. African-Americans or ‘black’ men (I have serious issues with black-white terminology, which I present elsewhere – see links below) were given the right to vote by the 15th amendment of 1870, though voter suppression was endemic under ‘Jim Crow’ laws until the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, as we see today, that act has not prevented contemporary voter suppression by right-wing states.

The US voting and governmental system doesn’t seem to compare favourably with that of Australia, where I live. Australian governments are Westminster-based, as are the governments of the UK, Canada, New Zealand, India and South Africa, with obvious variations. That means the Prime Ministers of those countries are not elected directly by the populace, as occurs in the USA. They’re first elected by their particular parties, on the putative basis that they can best represent and promote that party’s policies to the people. The Prime Minister works in the Parliament – the Westminster version of Congress – and chooses her cabinet from other elected Members of Parliament, as opposed to the directly elected US President’s chief officers, who are personally chosen by the President, with no necessary experience in government. The Prime Minister (primum inter pares – first among equals) works inside the Parliament, shoulder to shoulder with her colleagues and within spitting distance of the opposition, whereas the US president is completely separated from Congress and is surrounded by his own personal staff and decision-makers, and so freed from direct confrontation with political opposition, or from defending his political actions and positions.

The case of Trump underlines many of the problems of the US system. United Staters boast that ‘anyone can become President’, but this isn’t such a great idea. There needs to be a basic proficiency test that, at the very least, separates adult contenders from children. Trump took advantage of this complete lack of vetting, and as such, took advantage of the major flaw in democracy that was pointed out nearly 2500 years ago by the likes of Plato and Aristotle. Unabashed anti-democratic elitists, these philosophers personally witnessed the damage that a populist demagogue, a person who promised everything but delivered nothing, could do to their state. The rise of Trump, always an object of contempt to the political elite, whether right or left, essentially repeated this 2500 year-old trick – appeal directly to the people, pretend you are one of them, and don’t stint on vague elaborate claims – drain the swamp, build the wall, make the state great again. The Republican Party was initially very reluctant to embrace Trump, but finally embraced his fanatical popularity among ‘the base’, with disastrous consequences for both the party and the nation.

How will the USA dig itself out of this hole? In the short term, there needs to be consequences for a person who has lived a whole life, from childhood, without consequences. Honestly, this doesn’t seem likely to happen. United Staters blindly worship their Presidential system, and remember their Presidents by number – something which will never be emulated by other nations. Recent events – including two impeachments -have shown that there are no clear laws or procedures for dumping a criminal President. The US President appears, for all intents and purposes, to be above the law, apparently due to the importance of is position. One would think it was self-evident that with great power comes great responsibility, including legal responsibility, but it has now become clear that in the USA, the President can act as a dictator between Presidential elections. I see no serious legislative activity to change this ludicrous situation. Gentleman’s agreements don’t cut it.

Voter suppression just isn’t a thing in Australia, New Zealand and other Westminster-based countries. In Australia, voting is mandatory, all Australian citizens over eighteen must vote in federal and state elections, or incur a fine. This includes all those in prison for sentences of three years or less. All ex-offenders must vote. Very few people object to these requirements. And of course, all voting takes place on a Saturday, to inconvenience as few working people as possible. The USA’s Tuesday voting system harks back to its agrarian past, and also its religious attitude to ‘days of rest’. It’s frankly too depressing to go into further detail. Needless to say, a Tuesday voting system acts against the needs of the working poor. The USA has the lowest minimum wage of any developed country. Australia, incidentally, has the highest. I point this out as a non-nationalist (though not an anti-nationalist).

No voting system is perfect (Australia, like the US, has problems with gerrymandering) but some are more perfect than others. A voting system that has a multitude of state laws for voting in a federal election is clearly disastrous. The USA seems overly governed in this regard. There is also too much voting – major national elections every two years means that the nation is almost perpetually in election mode. There also appears to be little oversight with regard to the vast amounts of funds spent on campaigning and lobbying, which obviously tilts votes in favour of the moneyed class in a nation with the largest rich-poor divide in the world.

I’ve pointed out just some of the problems facing ‘the world’s greatest democracy’. Many of its other problems are social – failures in the basic education system, massive incarceration rates, especially for victimless crimes, the intensification of partisan politics exacerbated by social media and the absence of a multi-party political system, and out-of-control gun and armaments ownership, to name a few. All of this requires root and branch reform, which I don’t see happening. It’s a shame. Europe now seems to be emerging as our best hope for the future.

References

https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/magna-carta-muse-and-mentor/magna-carta-and-the-us-constitution.html

https://edtechbooks.org/democracy/britishinfluence

https://www.history.com/topics/british-history/english-bill-of-rights

https://www.britannica.com/place/United-States/Constitutional-differences-with-Britain

Australia had the highest minimum wage in the world in 2019

https://ussromantics.com/category/race/

Written by stewart henderson

July 18, 2021 at 6:49 pm

on religion and explanation

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it’s true

Jacinta: I’ve been thinking about religion as the earliest form of explanation for a while, and about when we – our species, or our ancestors – began to feel the need for explanations, about everyday regularities and irregularities, such as why the blinding white disc travels across the sky, disappears, plunging the world into darkness, then reappears on the opposite side and retraverses the sky again. And again and again. Or why these periods of light are sometimes warmer, sometimes cooler. Or why water pours from the sky from time to time. Or why, in the darkness, there are patterns of tiny white lights in the sky, together with a much larger pale white disc that seems to be slowly eaten away to nothing then replenished over a period of many ‘days’ and ‘nights’. What were these things, and why did the ‘air’ around us whizz by, sometimes with such force as to blow the trees down and blow our children off their feet and make them cry.

Canto: Hmm. Dogs and cats certainly don’t seem to wonder about such things. What about bonobos? They certainly display curiosity. I’ve seen monkeys crowd around an exotic animal, poking and prodding and jumping away when they get a reaction, just as I’ve seen the forest people of the Congo crowding around a white man, something completely new in their lives.

Jacinta: Yes isn’t the internet a grand thing for the armchair-bound. That sort of curiosity, as you say, is for new things, and it is on display in cats and dogs. And the questions for them are – can I eat it? Is it dangerous? But the queer regularities that have been with all these creatures from the beginning – night and day, warmth and cold, rain and shine, earth and sky – it seems unlikely that any dog or cat has felt curious about such things. Bonobos I’m not so sure about, but I’m doubtful. At some stage in our ancestry, and it would be obviously linked to neural development, we started asking ourselves – why is this happening?

Canto: Language. To ask these questions, even of ourselves, wouldn’t we need language?

Jacinta: Hmmm. Maybe. But imagine some highly irregular natural event, like a solar eclipse, being experienced by our pre-lingual ancestors, whether Homo erectus or an Australopithecine. They’d be shocked, scared, and they’d be hanging together, maybe huddling together, communicating their fear, and maybe their wonder.

Canto: Thinking mostly, is it dangerous? Should we hide? And even with language, with a singular event like that, they wouldn’t have an explanation.

Jacinta: Well, they might have a go at an explanation – okay, maybe you’re right, maybe some kind of language would be necessary, which is kind of the same thing as neural development. I mean, language clearly didn’t just come about, it evolved, over who knows how long. And we still don’t know if Neanderthals had it, or some rudimentary version of it, like us, 100,000 years ago or whatever. Think of fire. Once someone learned how to create and control it, and utilise it for warmth and to ward off predators, and, presumably later, to transform our food, they needed to communicate these skills. And from there, or somewhere, they might go on to communicate other things, like navigating by the stars, or how those stars crossed the sky, like human travellers crossing the land in search of food. Stories, of a kind.

Canto: So, I’ve been investigating a bit more, and there’s been some observed behaviours in chimps – and clearly they don’t have language, unless you define language very widely – that some have described as proto-ritual, such as slow-dancing in the face of fires. Fires caused by thunderstorms would be a highly irregular feature of life for chimps, living half in savannah grasslands, half in forests. And ‘dancing’, or ritual movements, might be a way of trying to placate or somehow communicate with this apparently living, dangerous force. And they’ve also been observed performing such ‘dances’ when the rain pours down.

Jacinta: Hmmm, and those movements might be meant to convey something to the fire or rain, or some other phenomenon, but also to other chimps. Something about communicating to others that there’s maybe a way to deal with these phenomena. This might hardly be in the realm of proto-proto religion, but surely the first religions were animistic – according significance and even some kind of intention to the wind and rain, thunder and lightning, lakes and streams, hills and valleys, specific trees and so on.

Canto: Yes, much fuss has been made of a tree hollow in which chimps were found placing stones, for no non-ritualistic purpose human observers could think of. If nothing else, it indicates that the more we observe other species, the more complex and multi-faceted they tend to become. Remember when we used to talk about bird-brains?

Jacinta: I also saw, on a video, that during a firestorm one of the chimps, apparently a king-pin, appeared to be raging at the fire, seeming to suggest that he – it would surely be a male, given chimp society – could, or thought he could, tame the beast, like old George slaying the dragon. Intimations of future shamanism?

Canto: Yes, or maybe he was just pissed off after a fight with the missus. Jane Goodall, on noting chimpanzees sitting for a long time staring ‘dreamily’ at a waterfall, used the term spirituality, which she roughly described as ‘the experience of appreciating magnificent, unknowable powers at work in the world beyond ourselves’. I believe Franz de Waal has used the term, in a different context, for bonobos too, but I’m not so comfortable with the term, it’s way too vague, and it drags religion behind it too emphatically. A feeling of awe, or wonder, of being overwhelmed, etc, can be described as just that.

Jacinta: And yet. A noisy, crushing, powerful waterfall, a raging, dangerous, painful fire – attributing something like intention to these things seems like a step forward. And also the desire for mastery of these forces, by somehow understanding and manipulating their intentions, that might seem an advance. But it’s hard to tell, with our smug hindsight.

Canto: And talking about hindsight, many of us consider, from the pinnacles of science, that religion is just a hangover from the days of pre-scientific explanations. Why are we here? Because the god called God created us to have dominion over the birds and bees and beasts of the field, and after a female was built from a male rib (which must’ve contained some pretty impressive pluripotent cells), and after some snakey female behaviour, we were sent forth out of Eden to multiply, and the god left us to our own devices, but when he came back from wheeling and dealing in foreign parts, he found we were wrecking everything – female trouble again, doubtless. And so he decided to drown us all, so as to Make his Arcadia Great Again, but, presumably feeling a bit tired of the creation process, he chose a human family and unspecified number of species to float about in a boat for a while, watching their friends and neighbours drowning, so as to begin it all again, but definitely for the last time, because, having discovered golf, he’d really lost interest.

Jacinta: Yes, that’s one variant, perhaps not the orthodox one, but as Mary Midgley used to say, these sorts of stories provide a far richer account of our origins than anything scientism has to offer. I mean, life from non-life in a warm puddle? Boring. 

Canto: But seriously, these creation stories, and ancilllary stories of the fruitful, deadly forests and the deserts and their oases, and the wind and the rain and storms and fevers and the patterned, watching stars and the smiling, burning sun, and the cool steadfast moon, these were as rich and comprehensive as they could possibly be, and those who remembered and told these stories best, and had the most intimate relations with all these insidious, ineluctable forces, would be precious persons indeed.

Jacinta: Mmmm. It’s a beginning.

References

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/03/chimpanzee-spirituality/475731/

 

creation stories – a critique and an appreciation

 

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

July 12, 2021 at 8:06 pm

more on fuel cells and electrolysers

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Cross section of a PEMEL(polymer exchange membrane electrolyte?) stack comprising four cells, according to Science Direct

Jacinta: So continuing with Philip Russell’s simple video of a small hydrogen fuel cell (in the previous post), he explains that when the electrolysis process reverses itself, powering the fan, hydrogen is entering the cathode where it reacts with the palladium catalyst. The reaction with palladium is described as complex and weird, so he puts the matter off to a future video. In any case the hydrogen is split, producing electrons and hydrogen ions. Those electrons travel around the circuit which powers the fan, or a light bulb or some other electrical device, and the hydrogen ions travel through/across the PEM, where they react with the electrons in the circuit, and the oxygen, to produce water, which escapes from the anode side. 

Canto: So what they’re after in all this is the electrons, in sufficient abundance and in continuous supply to power whatever, without the use of carbon-based fuels. Frankly I’m not even sure how fossil fuels, hydrocarbons etc produce electricity, but hopefully I’ll learn something about this along the way.

Jacinta: You mean how does coal, oil or gas get transformed into high-energy electrons bumped along in a circuit? Yes, we have a lot to learn. 

Canto: And how do electrons in a wire make an air-conditioner work? But let’s stick with hydrogen for now. An older video, from 2012, from the excellent Fully Charged series, provides some other insights. I won’t go into too much detail with it, as the fuel cell described is very similar to Russell’s, but it does highlight some problems, at least from 2012. First, the interviewee, James Courtney from Birmingham University, uses the term proton-exchange membrane (PEM) rather than Russell’s PEM – a polymer exchange membrane. They mean the same thing, as the membrane is made of a polymer, and the key is that it’s an ‘electron insulator’, allowing protons to pass through. The polymer is usually nafion, a synthetic polymer created sixty years ago. It’s described as an ionomer for its ionic properties. But the most important thing I learned from Courtney is about the issue of platinum/palladium. It’s very very expensive, and its price is rising. Courtney – nine years ago – was experimenting with solid oxide electrolytes.

 Jacinta: From Wikipedia: 

solid oxide fuel cell (or SOFC) is an electrochemical conversion device that produces electricity directly from oxidizing a fuel. Fuel cells are characterized by their electrolyte material; the SOFC has a solid oxide or ceramic electrolyte. Advantages of this class of fuel cells include high combined heat and power efficiency, long-term stability, fuel flexibility, low emissions, and relatively low cost. The largest disadvantage is the high operating temperature which results in longer start-up times and mechanical and chemical compatibility issues.

Canto: An organisation called Bloom Energy, self-described as ‘a leader in the SOFC industry’, has a bit to say about the technology. So, again we have the negative anode and the positive cathode, and the electrolyte in between which undergoes ‘an electrochemical reaction’…

Jacinta: That’s when the miracle occurs.

Canto: Yes, and this produces an electrical current. So here’s something to think about re electrolytes: 

The electrolyte is an ion conductor that moves ions either from the fuel to the air or the air to the fuel to create electron flow. Electrolytes vary among fuel cell types, and depending on the electrolyte deployed, the fuel cells undergo slightly different electrochemical reactions, use different catalysts, run on different fuels, and achieve varying efficiencies.

Does that help?

Jacinta: Yes, it helps to complicate matters. 

Canto: So the Bloom Energy website reckons that SOFCs have the best potential for fuel cell technology, and promises they’ll bear fruit in the next six years – instead of the usual five. Here’s their diagram of an SOFC.

 

Note that they’re using natural gas (methane) in a process called methane reformation, also mentioned by James Courtney. So, not exactly a clean technology, but also, as the illustration mentions, no precious metals, corrosive acids or molten materials. 

Jacinta: But apparently this isn’t a hydrogen fuel cell. Barely a mention of hydrogen. 

Canto: Yes, the illustration presents oxygen ions reacting with ‘fuel in the fuel cell’ to produce electricity. The cleanness comes from the fact that there’s no combustion, making it more sustainable and of course more green than combustion-based tech. Apart from a partial reduction in greenhouse gases, this tech does away with the emission of harmful sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. And their ‘Bloom box’ fuel cell packs can run on hydrogen, with net zero carbon emissions. They see their technology being well suited to distributed networks and mini-grids, which may provide the power supplies of the future.

Jacinta: We shall see – if we live long enough. Meanwhile let’s look at another video, featuring Dr Stephen Carr, of the H2 Centre, University of South Wales, on how a hydrogen fuel cell works. Eventually it’ll all come together.

Canto: And then fall apart again. This video is more recent than the previous two, but I’m not sure that there have been any new developments in the interval. So Dr Carr presents ‘a demonstration kit of a renewable hydrogen energy storage system’, in which the hydrogen is produced by solar power…

Jacinta: Another magical moment?

Canto: Well, apparently. Anyway, he represents the sun with a lamp – so I suppose it’s a demonstration, not the real thing. The lamp shines on a PV (photovoltaic) panel which produces electricity.

Jacinta: Grrr, they never explain that bit.

Canto: How do you produce annoyance? Bet you can’t explain that either. Anyway, the electricity runs through an electrolyser, which splits water into oxygen and hydrogen, which is stored for times when we can’t directly produce power from the sun. At such times we can run the hydrogen and oxygen through a fuel cell (which seems to operate oppositely to an electrolyser) to produce electrical power. As he says (and this is new) the photons from the lamp (in lieu of the sun) are converted by the panel into electrical energy or power (but I think those are two distinct things). This is of course referring to how solar energy/power works, which is an entirely different thing. We’ll leave that aside for now, along with the big heap of other things.

Jacinta: Yes let’s just focus on what Dr Carr says. The electrical power powers an electrolyser. The electrons are used to drive an electrochemical process which splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. On one side of this electrolyser the water is ‘split into hydrogen’ and on the other side it produces oxygen (magic happens). Then the hydrogen and oxygen can be stored until required, when we can somehow convert these elements into electricity. We can observe, as in the Philip Russell video, bubbles of hydrogen and oxygen forming on either side of the electrolyser, and being collected and stored. 

Canto: So we’re again not going to discover the detailed physics/chemistry of all this, but apparently we now have stored power. And this gets run backwards through the fuel cell. In the fuel cell, the released oxygen and hydrogen, in a reverse process to electrolysis (I think), produces pure, apparently drinkable water, and electricity. So the two gases are released from the electrolyser into the fuel cell, oxygen at one electrode, hydrogen at the other, and they’re combined and subjected to electrochemical processes (more magic), producing water and electricity sufficient in this tiny demo model to power a fan or small light. So far, precisely as enlightening as the Philip Russell video.

Jacinta: So next we’re taken to a big electrolyser, something like the new one at Tonsley, South Australia. It uses a stack of some 80 fuel cells to produce stacks of hydrogen. The electrolyser takes in about 50kw of power and produces about 1 kilogram of hydrogen per hour – which means very little to me. 

Canto: It’s good that they know this I suppose. So they have an electrolysis stack, and they feed in ‘pure de-ionised water’ – I bet we could do a whole post on that – and apply DC electric power – another post’s worth – which splits the water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Jacinta: When I think of AC and DC I think of Tesla v Edison. History is so much easier than science. I think we need to do a basic course in electricity. But continuing with Dr Carr, for what it’s worth to us, he says that ‘everything else in this unit is gas clean-up’. The hydrogen is ‘de-watered’ to make sure it’s completely dry, and it’s also de-oxygenated, in other words thoroughly purified. Then, for storage, it’s compressed to 200 bar, meaning 200x atmospheric pressure.

Canto: The bar, presumably for barometric pressure, is commonly used in Europe but not accepted by the US, centre of arseholedom with regard to weights and measures. 

Jacinta: The trouble is that ‘atmosphere’ for measures of atmospheric pressure, is highly contestable. Anyway, we’ll finish this off next time, for now I’ll just say that Elon Musk is still not much impressed with hydrogen technology, saying that hydrolysis is way too energy-intensive-expensive, that methane or propane etc extraction defeats the purpose, that hydrogen is too light to store easily, that it’s very volatile etc, but maybe it could work for aircraft in the future… So why is so much money being expended on it, in so many countries? Why is it suddenly such a big deal? That’s a ‘mystery’ we’ll have to investigate… 

References

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360319919312145

The Hydrogen fuel cell explained, clean energy, by Philip Russell, youtube video

Hydrogen Fuel Cells | Fully Charged, youtube video

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solid_oxide_fuel_cell

https://www.bloomenergy.com/blog/everything-you-need-to-know-about-solid-oxide-fuel-cells/

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1369702103003316

How does a hydrogen fuel cell work, with Dr Stephen Car, video

Elon Musk about Hydrogen Cars, video

Written by stewart henderson

July 7, 2021 at 9:27 pm

on fuel cells and electrolysers and other confusions

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Canto: So it seems the more you look towards future technologies, the more future technologies there are to look at. Funny that. Two future developments we want to focus on in these next few posts are the graphene aluminium ion batteries being researched and developed in Queensland for the world, and the whole field of green hydrogen technology, a topic we’ll start on today.

Jacinta: Yes and the two key terms which we’re hoping might enlighten us if we can get a handle on them are fuel cell and electrolyser.

Canto: But first, I’ve just watched a brief video, admittedly five years old, a lifetime it seems in nuevo-tech terms, in which Elon Musk, who I’ve generally considered a hero, describes hydrogen fuels as silly, and seems at the end to be lost for words in expressing his contempt for the technology.

Jacinta: Yes, and the video appears to have been unearthed recently because all the comments, mostly well-informed (as far as I can discern) are only months old, and contradict Musk’s claims. But let’s not dwell on that. What is a fuel cell?

Canto: Well, we’re looking at the possibility of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), which presumably will operate in direct competition with Tesla’s EVs. Interestingly, one of the claimed deficits of EVs is their long charging times, which the new graphene-aluminium ion technology should greatly reduce. If FCEVs become a thing, the ‘old’ battery driven things will become known as BEVs, even before the EV term has really caught on.. Anyway, fuel cells produce electricity. You don’t have to plug them in, according to BMW.com (which may have a bias towards hydrogen in terms of investment). However, they don’t really show how the hydrogen is produced, and their image, shown above, presents a hydrogen tank without explaining where the hydrogen comes from.

Jacinta: Yes, so here’s how BMW.com begins its explanation:

In fuel cell technology, a process known as reverse electrolysis takes place, in which hydrogen reacts with oxygen in the fuel cell. The hydrogen comes from one or more tanks built into the FCEV, while the oxygen comes from the ambient air. The only results of this reaction are electrical energy, heat and water, which is emitted through the exhaust as water vapor. So hydrogen-powered cars are locally emission-free…

Canto: Which explains nothing much so far. Hydrogen reacts with oxygen. How? By reverse electrolysis. What’s that? The name implies splitting by electricity (but in reverse?), but I’d like more detail.

Jacinta: Yeah we’ll have to go elsewhere for that. In the image above you see a battery pack, much smaller than those in EVs, and an electric engine or motor. The BMW site reckons that the generated electricity from the fuel cell can either flow directly to the electric motor, powering the vehicle, or it can go to the battery, called a ‘peak power battery’, which stores the energy until needed by the motor. Being constantly recharged by the fuel cell, it’s only a fraction of the size of an EV battery.

Canto: Okay, that’s the BMW design, but I want the science nitty-gritty. I’ve heard that fuel cells go back a long way.

Jacinta: Yes, and we may need several posts to get our heads around them. I’ll start with the English engineer Francis Thomas Bacon (illustriously named), who developed the first alkaline fuel cell, or hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell, also known as the Bacon fuel cell, in the 1930s. This type of fuel cell has been used by NASA since the sixties. But the Wikipedia article again skips some steps.

Canto: So alkaline is the opposite of acidic, sort of, and car batteries require acid, but I don’t know what the difference is, in electrical terms.

Jacinta: Hopefully all will be revealed. One basic thing I’ve learned is that a fuel cell requires a cathode, an anode (collectively, two electrodes) and an electrolyte. So let’s take this slowly. The cathode is the one from which the conventional current departs – CCD, cathode current departs. Conventional current is defined as the direction of the positive charge. In the case of hydrogen, that’s just protons. The electrons go in the opposite direction. The anode, which maybe I should’ve mentioned first, is the electrode through which a conventional current enters the fuel cell or device. Think ACID, anode current into device. Now, the cathode and anode must be made of particular materials, which presumably relate to the fuel you’re trying to split, or electrolyse.

Canto: Hmmm, I’m wondering if a fuel cell and an electrolytic cell are the same thing, or one is a subset of the other. Apparently not, according to Wikipedia.

For fuel cells and other galvanic cells, the anode is the negative terminal; for electrolytic cells (where electrolysis occurs), the anode is the positive terminal. Made from, with, or by water.

So, shit, what’s a galvanic cell and how does it differ from an electrolytic cell? From the above description, it sounds like an electrolytic cell (anode positive) is the opposite of a fuel/galvanic cell (anode negative). We need to know what electrolysis actually means – not to mention galvanisis. And I believe reverse electrolysis is a thing.

Jacinta: Shit indeed. So at least from the above we know that electrolysis always involves water. Or does it? Okay, a galvanic cell, also known as a voltaic cell (Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta) combines two metals and an electrolyte (in Galvani’s case, a frog’s leg). Galvani and others thought the frog, or some other creature, was necessary for the current – ‘animal electricity’ became a thing for a while. Volta showed that this was not the case, though there was much argy-bargy for a while. But enough easy history, we need to tackle tough science.

Canto: So I don’t know if the currently titled hydrogen fuel cells are correctly described as alkaline fuel cells, but there are some videos, such as one by Philip Russell, describing very simple hydrogen fuel cells, driving a small fan. Russell explains the process very carefully, and I’ll go through it myself for my understanding. He has a tiny blue fuel cell connected by two tubes to two glasses of water. In one glass, hydrogen will be collected from one side of the cell, and oxygen from the other side in the other glass. He connects the fuel cell to a small solar panel via two wires, one red one black. He says that ‘to the negative side [holding the black wire] I’m going to connect to the side [of the cell] that produces hydrogen and the positive side [red] I’m going to connect to the side that produces hydrogen’. And now I’m confused. Both sides will produce hydrogen? How? What does that even mean?

Jacinta: In DC circuitry, black is conventionally negative and red positive. The difference between AC and DC may have to be explored because I think it’s relevant to all this nuevo-tech. Now, considering that Russell plugged the wires into opposite sides of the cell and said twice ‘the side that produces hydrogen’, the logical conclusion is that he made a mistake, but I can’t be sure. After all, what does he want to produce other than hydrogen?

Canto: Actually he said that one of the glasses will be collecting oxygen, so clearly he should’ve said oxygen for one of those two sides. But which one? Let’s continue with the video. So he’s connected the solar panel to the cell and he says ‘now we can collect solar energy and turn it into hydrogen and oxygen’. So the mistake hypothesis seems right, and that might have to be clarified with other videos. We plan to look at about a hundred of them, because our skulls are thick. So Russell next takes us inside the fuel cell. The outside is of blue-tinted glass or plastic. Inside we see ‘a perforated metal sheet’ (at least on one side). Apparently this is a hydrogen flow field, which ‘allows the hydrogen gas to escape from the fuel cell’. This again makes little sense to me. How did the hydrogen get in there in the first place? Hopefully all will be explained – or not. Next to, or behind this flow field is an anode consisting of a palladium catalyst. And in a fuel cell, the anode is negative.

Jacinta: According to Britannica, palladium is a type of platinum metal which makes an excellent catalyst:

Because hydrogen passes rapidly through the metal at high temperatures, heated palladium tubes impervious to other gases function as semipermeable membranes and are used to pass hydrogen in and out of closed gas systems or for hydrogen purification.

Canto: Good, so between the two electrodes is our electrolyte, consisting of a polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) which ‘allows the transfer of the hydrogen gas and hydrogen ions’. Again this isn’t particularly enlightening but we’ll explore it later. Next to the the electrolyte membrane is the cathode (positive), and then comes the oxygen flow field, ‘which allows the oxygen to come in and escape from the fuel cell’. Again unclear.

Jacinta: It’s a start, sort of. We’ll glean what we can from this little video and supplement it from other videos and info sites. So electricity is coming into the fuel cell which breaks down the water coming from the two glass jars. I’m confused, though, about the glass jars and the tubes leading to, or from, the fuel cell. They’re filled with water (which I’m presuming is highly purified) and they’re delivering water to either side of the fuel cell, via these tubes, which are attached, in each of the glasses, to something like a suction cup, which will, it seems, have something to do with gas coming from the fuel and being sent through the tube to the bottom of the glass jars – hydrogen along one tube, oxygen along the other. So the water is presumably being depleted from the jars and the two gasses are being collected at the bottom of the jars, to judge from the look of the setup. But how are these tubes able to deliver water one way and collect gas in the other direction at the same time?

Canto: Haha and we’re only halfway through this teeny video. And we next go to a diagram which again upsets our thinking, as it shows the anode as positive, whereas Wikipedia says the anode is negative in fuel cells. It seems we’re being stumped by nomenclature. What Philip Russell is demonstrating appears to be an electrolytic cell or an electrolyser, but it’s being called a fuel cell. A website from energy-gov, linked below, has a diagram of a fuel cell/electrolyser very similar to Russell’s. They call it an electrolyser. They’re conspiring to confuse us!

Illustration of a PEM electrolyzer

 

Jacinta: Anyway, Russell explains his thingummmy, and I quote: ‘We have, in the middle, this polymer electrolyte membrane [PEM] surrounded by the electrodes, and on either side, the anode and cathodes[!]. When we start, water enters through the anode, and here, when it reaches the cathode and anode [!] things start to happen. The water is broken down into hydrogen ions by the electrons in the battery, and this then produces oxygen gas. The hydrogen ions travel across/through the PEM where they are reacted with electrons and this forms hydrogen gas which escapes through to the cathode side of the fuel cell’.

Canto: Yes, clear as far as it goes. So this is electrolysis he’s talking about isn’t it? Is it really this simple? Probably not, in scaled up versions. Anyway, Russell finishes up by disconnecting his wires from the solar panel and connecting them to a small fan, which immediately starts to function. The fuel cell has reversed, according to Russell, and is producing electricity from H2 and O2. 

Jacinta: Yes, the way he presents it, it’s all very simple. But I don’t think so. We’ve scratched the surface of this technology, and informed ourselves in very small part, but there’s a long way to go. We need to struggle on, in our brave, heroic way.

 

References

https://www.bmw.com/en/innovation/how-hydrogen-fuel-cell-cars-work.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alkaline_fuel_cell

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galvanic_cell

https://www.britannica.com/science/palladium-chemical-element

https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/hydrogen-production-electrolysis

 

Written by stewart henderson

July 3, 2021 at 11:50 am

a hydrogen energy industry in South Australia?

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an artist’s impression of SA’s hydrogen power project

I recently received in the mail a brochure outlining SA Labor’s hydrogen energy jobs plan, ahead of the state election in March 2022. The conservatives are currently in power here. The plan involves building ‘a 200MW hydrogen fuelled power station to provide firming capacity in the South Australian Electricity Market’.

So, what does a ‘hydrogen fuelled power station’ entail, what is ‘firming capacity’ and what does 200MW mean?

A presumably USA site called energy.gov tells me this:

Hydrogen is a clean fuel that, when consumed in a fuel cell, produces only water. Hydrogen can be produced from a variety of domestic resources, such as natural gas, nuclear power, biomass, and renewable power like solar and wind. These qualities make it an attractive fuel option for transportation and electricity generation applications. It can be used in cars, in houses, for portable power, and in many more applications. Hydrogen is an energy carrier that can be used to store, move, and deliver energy produced from other sources.

This raises more questions than answers, for me. I can understand that hydrogen is a clean fuel – after all, it’s the major constituent, molecularly speaking, of water, which is pretty clean stuff. But what exactly is meant by ‘clean’ here? Do they mean ‘carbon neutral’, one of today’s buzz terms? Presumably so, and obviously hydrogen doesn’t contain carbon. Next question, what exactly is a fuel cell? Wikipedia explains:

A fuel cell is an electrochemical cell that converts the chemical energy of a fuel (often hydrogen) and an oxidizing agent (often oxygen) into electricity through a pair of redox reactions. Fuel cells are different from most batteries in requiring a continuous source of fuel and oxygen (usually from air) to sustain the chemical reaction, whereas in a battery the chemical energy usually comes from metals and their ions or oxides that are commonly already present in the battery, except in flow batteries. Fuel cells can produce electricity continuously for as long as fuel and oxygen are supplied.

So the planned 200 megawatt power station will use the chemical energy of hydrogen, and oxygen as an oxidising agent, to produce electricity through a pair of redox reactions. Paraphrasing another website, the electricity is produced by combining hydrogen and oxygen atoms. This causes a reaction across an electrochemical cell, which produces water, electricity, and some heat. The same website tells me that, as of October 2020, there were 161 fuel cells operating in the US with, in total, 250 megawatts of capacity. The planned SA power station will have 200 megawatts, so does that make it a gigantic fuel cell, or a fuel cell collective? In any case, it sounds ambitious. The process of extracting the hydrogen is called electrolysis, and the devices used are called electrolysers, which will be powered by solar energy. Excess solar will no longer need to be switched off remotely during times of low demand.

There’s no doubt that the fortunes of hydrogen as a clean fuel are on the rise. It’s also being considered more and more as a storage system to provide firming capacity – to firm up supply that intermittent power sources – solar and wind – can’t always provide. The completed facility should be able to store 3600 tonnes of hydrogen, amounting to about two months of supply. There are export opportunities too, with all this excess supply. Japan and South Korea are two likely markets.

While it may seem like all this depends on Labor winning state government, the local libs are not entirely averse to the idea. It has already installed the nation’s largest hydrogen electrolyser (small, though, at 1.25 MW) at the Tonsley technology hub, and the SA Energy Minister has been talking up the idea of a hydrogen revolution. The $11.4 million electrolyser, a kind of proof of concept, extracts hydrogen gas from water at a rate of up to 480 kgs per day.

The difference between the libs and labor it seems is really about who pays for the infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, the libs are looking to the private sector, while Labor’s plans are for a government-owned facility, with the emphasis on jobs. Their brochure on the planned power station and ancillary developments is called the ‘hydrogen jobs plan’. According to SA’s Labor leader, Peter Malinauskas, up to 300 jobs will be created in constructing the hydrogen plant, at least 10,000 jobs will be ‘unlocked from the $20bn pipeline of renewable projects in South Australia’ (presumably not all hydrogen-related, but thrown in for good measure) and 900+ jobs will be created through development of a hydrogen export industry. He’s being a tad optimistic, needless to say.

But hydrogen really is in the air these days (well, sort of, in the form of water vapour). A recent New Scientist article, ‘The hydrogen games’, reports that Japan is hoping that its coming Olympic and Paralympic Games (which others are hoping will be cancelled) will be a showcase for its plan to become a ‘hydrogen society’ over the next few decades. And this plan is definitely good news for Australia.

Japan has pledged to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. However, this is likely impossible to achieve by solar or other established renewables. There just isn’t enough available areas for large scale solar or wind, in spite of floating solar plants on its lakes and offshore wind farms in planning. This is a problem for its hydrogen plans too, as it currently needs to produce the hydrogen from natural gas. It hopes that future technology will make green hydrogen from local renewables possible, but meanwhile it’s looking to overseas imports, notably from Australia, ‘which has ample sunshine, wind and empty space that make it perfect for producing this fuel’. Unfortunately we also have an ample supply of empty heads in our federal government, which might get in the way of this plan. And the Carbon Club, as exposed by Marian Wilkinson in her book of that name, continues to be as cashed-up and almost thuggishly influential as ever here. The success of the South Australian plan, Labor or Liberal, and the growing global interest in hydrogen as an energy source – France and Germany are also spending big on hydrogen – may be what will finally weaken the grip of the fossil fuel industry on a country seen by everyone else as potentially the best-placed to take financial advantage of the green resources economy.

References

Hydrogen Jobs Plan: powering new jobs & industry (South Australian Labor brochure)

https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/hydrogen-fuel-basics

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel_cell

https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/hydrogen/use-of-hydrogen.php

‘The hydrogen games’, New Scientist No 3336 May 2021 pp18-19

Marian Wilkinson: The Carbon Club: How a network of influential climate sceptics, politicians and business leaders fought to control Australia’s climate policy, 2020

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-03-23/hydrogen-power-play-in-sa-as-labor-announces-gas-plant-project/100022842

Written by stewart henderson

June 24, 2021 at 7:49 pm

returning to the race myth

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‘My own personal view is that today we over-privilege and fetishise the concept of identity’.

Mark Thomas,  Professor of evolutionary genetics, University  College, London (quoted in  Superior: the return of race science, by Angela Saini, 2019)

A couple of years ago I tackled issues of race and identity politics in a post which focussed on ‘blackface’ among other things. I don’t think there’s much I’d change about it, but my current reading of Angela Saini’s above-mentioned book, in particular the chapter ‘Roots’, which relates what anthropology has found regarding the first indicator of race amongst those who tend to obsess over it, namely skin colour, has updated my knowledge without really changing my outlook.

When we think of ‘white’ people one of the most obvious examples would be the pale, cold-weather Scots, of which I’m one. We’re not called WASPs for nothing. I was amused as an adult to find paperwork indicating that I was baptised as a Presbyterian. WTF is that? Another funny thing about my waspness is the fact that I’ve lived in sunny Australia since the age of five, my skin darkening quite splendidly every summer in the pre-sunblock era. Needless to say my intelligence dipped sharply during those months.

Saini relates a story about a 1903 archaeological discovery in Somerset, of one of the oldest human bodies ever found in Britain. Dating back some 10,000 years, he was given the name Cheddar Man as he was discovered in caves at Cheddar Gorge, and much more recently he was analysed by genetic sequencing. There was naturally a lot of interest in the genetics of this fellow, as English, or British, as cheddar cheese.

… what came as a real shock to many was that his bones… carried genetic signatures of skin pigmentation more commonly found in sub-Saharan Africa. It was probable, then, that Cheddar Man would have had dark skin. So dark, in fact, that by today’s standards he would be considered black.

Superior, Angela Saini, p167

Visual reconstructions based on the genetics also showed him to be far less WASP-looking than genteel society might condone. It was front-page news stuff, but experienced geneticists such as Mark Thomas were unfazed. The fact is that modern genomics has probably done more than anything else to scuttle the notions of fixed identities relating to blackness, whiteness, Europeaness, Asianess, Africaness, Scandinavianess or Irishness. In short the necessity of ness-ness ain’t necessarily so.

This has everything to do with genetic drift. As Thomas explains it, in pre-civilisation times, humans migrated in small groups, and would have varied physically (and of course in other ways) from those they separated from. Later, as groups grew and became more stable, there would have been an opposite effect, a greater homogeneity. Thus we see ‘Asians’, ‘Africans’ and ‘Europeans’, from our limited perspective, as near-eternal categories when in fact they’re relatively recent, and of course disintegrating with globalisation – an extremely recent phenomenon, genomically speaking.

On ‘blackness’ itself, that may have been a more recent phenomenon in our ancestry than ‘whiteness’. My good friends the bonobos, and their not-so-nice chimp cousins, tend to have light skin under their dark hair. As we moved forward in time from our ancestral link with chimps and bonobos, losing our body hair and increasing the number of sweat glands as we became more bipedal and used our speed for hunting, there would have been a selection preference for darker skin – again depending on particular environmental conditions and cultural practices. There is of course a quite large gap in our knowledge about early hominids (and there is controversy about how far back we should date the bonobo-human last common ancestor – identifying Graecopithecus as this ancestor tends to push the date further back) considering that Homo Habilis, which dates back, as far as we know, to 2.3 million years ago is the oldest member of our species identified so far. Beyond H habilis we have the Australopithecines, Ardipithecines, Sahelanthropus Tchadensis and Orrorin tugenensis, among others, which may take us back some 7 million years. DNA analysis can only take us back a few thousand years, so I don’t know how we’re ever going to sort out our deeper ancestry.

In any case, the new racial ‘ideas’, given impetus by various thugocracies in the former Yugoslavia as well as today’s Burma/Myanmar, China, India and the USA (where it may yet lead to civil war) are an indication of the fragility of truth when confronted and assaulted by fixed and fiercely held beliefs. Social media has become one of the new and most effective weapons in this assault, and when thugocracies gain control of these weapons, they become so much more formidable.

Truth of course, is, and should be its own weapon against identity politics. Knowledge should be the antidote to these supposedly indelible identities, of blackness, whiteness, Jewishness, Hindu-ness and so on. Unfortunately, too many of us are interested in confirmation than in truth. In fact, according to the psychologists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, in their book The enigma of reason, we use reason more often to confirm beliefs that we want to be true than for any other purpose. And when enough of the ruling class are concerned to confirm erroneous beliefs that happen to advantage them, as is the case for the current Indian Hindu government, the result is a thugocracy that oppresses women as well as the so-called ‘untouchables’ and other victims of the two-thousand year old caste system.

But having just read the chapter entitled ‘Caste’ of Angela Saini’s book, I should modify those remarks. The current Indian government is only reinforcing a system the disadvantages of which are more clear to ex-pats like Saini (and some Indian students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching) than it is to those that remain and ‘belong’. It involves more than just caste and religion, as it’s practiced by Christians and others, and enforced by families and broader relational and cultural units. My own detachment from family and cultural constraints makes it easy for me to judge this rather harshly. And in faraway Australia we hear of the horrors of in-group fealty without feeling its comforts. And naturally as a working-class lad and anti-authoritarian my sympathies are definitely with the underclass.

So how do we overcome the inwardness of caste and class systems, which are ultimately destructive of genetic diversity, not to mention causing the immiseration of millions? The answer, also provided by Mercier and Sperber’s thesis, is interaction and argument. They argue that reason developed as a social rather than an individual phenomenon. Evidence of course also must play a part. Saini’s book provides an excellent example of this, and the scientific community generally does too. Mercier and Sperber give an interesting example of how the marketplace of ideas can produce effective results over time:

The British abolitionists didn’t invent most of the arguments against slavery. But they refined them, backed them with masses of evidence, increased their credibility by relying on trustworthy witnesses, and made them more accessible by allowing them to see life through a slave’s eyes. Debates, public meetings, and newspapers brought these strengthened arguments to a booming urban population. And it worked. People were convinced not only of the evils of slavery but also of the necessity of doing something about it. They petitioned, gave money, and – with the help of other factors, from economy to international politics – had first the slave trade and then slavery itself banned.

The enigma of reason: a new theory of human understanding, H Mercier & D Sperber, p314

Some would say, of course, that slavery is still flourishing. I’ve even heard the claim that Jeff Bezos is the quintessential modern slave-owner. But nobody is credibly claiming today that slavery is reasonable. It has long ago lost the argument. That’s why evidence-based argument is our best hope for the future.

References

Superior: the return of race science, Angela Saini, 2019

The enigma of reason: a new theory of human understanding, Hugo Mercier & Dan Sperber, 2017.

 

Written by stewart henderson

June 17, 2021 at 8:51 pm