an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

a little about the chemistry of water and its presence on Earth

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So I now know, following my previous post, a little more than I did about how water’s formed from molecular hydrogen and oxygen – you have to break the molecular bonds and create new ones for H2O, and that requires activation energy, I think. But I need to explore all of this further, and I want to do so in the context of a fascinating question, which I’m hoping is related – why is there so much water on Earth’s surface?

When Earth was first formed, from planetesimals energetically colliding together, generating lots of heat (which may have helped with the creation of H2O, but not in liquid form??) there just doesn’t seem to have been a place for water, which would’ve evaporated into space, wouldn’t it? Presumably the still-forming, virtually molten Earth had no atmosphere. 

The most common theory put out for Earth’s water is bombardment in the early days by meteors of a certain type, carbonaceous chondrites. These meteors were formed further out from the sun, where water would have frozen. Carbonaceous chondrites are known to contain the same ratio of heavy water to ‘normal’ water as we find on Earth. Heavy water is formed with deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen containing a neutron as well as the usual proton. Obviously there had to have been plenty of these collisions over a long period to create our oceans. Comets have been largely ruled out because, of the comets we’ve examined, the deuterium/hydrogen ratio is about double that of the chondrites, though some have argued that those comets may be atypical. Also there’s some evidence that the D/H ratio of terrestrial water has changed over time.

So there are still plenty of unknowns about the history of Earth’s water. Some argue that volcanism, along with other internal sources, was wholly or partly responsible – water vapour is one of the gases produced in eruptions, which then condensed and fell as rain. Investigation of moon rocks has revealed a D/H ratio similar to that of chondrites, and also that of Earth (yes, there’s H2O on the moon, in various forms). This suggests that, since it has become clear that the Moon and Earth are of a piece, water has been there on both from the earliest times. Water ice detected in the asteroid belt and elsewhere in the solar system provides further evidence of the abundance of this hardy little molecule, which enriches the hypotheses of researchers. 

But I’m still mystified by how water is formed from molecular, or diatomic, hydrogen and oxygen. It occurs to me, thanks to Salman Khan, that having a look at the structural formulae of these molecules, as well as investigating ‘activation energy’, might help. I’ve filched the ‘Lewis structure’ of water from Wikipedia.

It shows that hydrogen atoms are joined to oxygen by a single bond, the sharing of a pair of electrons. They’re called polar covalent bonds, as described in my last post on the topic. H2 also binds the two hydrogen atoms with a single covalent bond, while O2 is bound in a double covalent bond. (If you’re looking for a really comprehensive breakdown of the electrochemical structure of water, I recommend this site).

So, to produce water, you need enough activation energy to break the bonds of H2 and O2 and create the bonds that form H2O. Interestingly, I’m currently reading The Emerald Planet, which gives an example of the kind of activation energy required. The Tunguska event, an asteroid visitation in the Siberian tundra in 1908, was energetic enough to rip apart the bonds of molecular nitrogen and oxygen in the surrounding atmosphere, leaving atomic nitrogen and oxygen to bond into nitric oxide. But let’s have a closer look at activation energy. 

So, according to Wikipedia:

In chemistry and physics, activation energy is the energy which must be available to a chemical or nuclear system with potential reactants to result in: a chemical reaction, nuclear reaction, or various other physical phenomena.

This stuff gets complicated and mathematical very quickly, but activation energy (Ea) is measured in either joules (or kilojoules) per mole or kilocalories per mole. A mole, as I’ve learned from Khan, is the number of atoms there are in 12g of carbon-12. So what? Well, that’s just a way of translating atomic mass units (amu) to grams (one gram equals one mole of amu). 

The point is though that we can measure the activation energy, which, in the case of molecular reactions, is going to be more than the measurable change between the initial and final conditions. Activation energy destabilises the molecules, bringing about a transition state in which usually stable bonds break down, freeing the molecules to create new bonds – something that is happening throughout our bodies at every moment. When molecular oxygen is combined with molecular hydrogen in a confined space, all that’s required is the heat from a lit match to start things off. This absorption of energy is called an endothermic reaction. Molecules near the fire break down into atoms, which recombine into water molecules, a reaction which releases a lot of energy, creating a chain of reactions until all the molecules are similarly recombined. From this you can imagine how water could have been created in abundance during the fiery early period of our solar system’s evolution. 

I’ll end with more on the structure of water, for my education. 

As a liquid, water has a structure in which the H-O-H angle is about 106°. It’s a polarised molecule, with the negative charge on the oxygen being around 70% of an electron’s negative charge, which is neutralised by a corresponding positive charge shared by the two hydrogen atoms. These values can change according to energy levels and environment. As opposite charges attract, different water molecules attract each other when their H atoms are oriented to other O atoms. The British Chemistry professor Martin Chaplin puts it better than I could:

This attraction is particularly strong when the O-H bond from one water molecule points directly at a nearby oxygen atom in another water molecule, that is, when the three atoms O-H O are in a straight line. This is called ‘hydrogen bonding’ as the hydrogen atoms appear to hold on to both O atoms. This attraction between neighboring water molecules, together with the high-density of molecules due to their small size, produces a great cohesive effect within liquid water that is responsible for water’s liquid nature at ambient temperatures.

We’re all very grateful for that nature. 

Written by stewart henderson

September 24, 2018 at 10:32 am

Posted in science, chemistry, water

Tagged with , , ,

why I’m not a conservative

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Probably better to read this highly recommended book than my article, but you’re welcome to do both

There are many ways of answering the above question. I might state the obvious – conservatives tend to be stodgy, boring, backward-facing selfish naysayers with a limited social conscience and little interest in, if not an outright fear of, scientific and technological development.  End of story.

But of course, that can’t be the whole story. We’re not as free to develop our own views as we think. I’m a product of a particular environment, a very working-class environment, though very bookish within the family. The recent Kavanaugh kerfuffle reminds me of my rough and ready high school days, though I was more often a victim than a perp. All through high school I was the smallest and probably lightest kid in my class, male or female, so I was the target of pranks, mostly ‘good-natured’. For example, on two occasions I was held out upside-down by the legs over the first-floor balustrade by my fun-loving schoolmates. Had they lost their collective grip, I suppose I would’ve dropped head-first to probable death. Yet, though I’m sure my heart-rate was well up at the time, I had a pretty strong faith in my friends – all boys of course – and their benign intentions. I never lost any sleep over it afterwards. 

I’m not suggesting this was working-class hijinx – think of Eton and Harrow ragging, etc – but there was more, including stuff I’m far from proud of, as I strove to fit in with the anti-intellectual and often nihilistically violent environment around me. The quality of teaching was pretty poor, our headmaster was an outright fascist, and I was happy to be a high school drop-out at fifteen. I got occasional assembly-line work, and my spare time was spent either failing to ingratiate myself with a gang of local vandals, or reading Jane Austen or encyclopaedia entries on Isaac Newton, etc. Not to mention wanking myself silly to fantasies of any local beauty I happened to clap my eyes on. Another great solace and opening to a wider world was the wordsmith musical artists of the early seventies I obsessed over, such as Dylan, Cohen and Bowie. 

So what has this to do with my politics? Well, the region of my childhood and youth was, and still is, one of the safest Labor electorates in the country (Labor, for international readers, is the party of the left here in Australia, as it is in Britain). I can’t imagine it ever going the way of the conservatives. In Australia, the urban/suburban working-class tend to vote left, while the rural working-class tend to vote right. It’s perhaps different from the USA where the working-class in general tend to vote right (though this seems to happen here in some parts, notably Queensland). This kind of pro-union us-and-them mentality, an atmosphere of both togetherness and despair, was what I breathed in as I wandered lonely as a cloud through the streets of my town. I engaged with others in petty theft and pointless vandalism, got caught and was placed on a bond, and felt self-servingly that the law was the principle weapon of the rich to beat down the poor.

In the early seventies a downturn in the economy hit our region particularly hard, and I felt it in the air of neglect and dilapidation, the family breakdowns, the beginnings of generational unemployment. I saw a neighbourhood of victims, unable to climb out of their situation, as if they’d been sold a pup and didn’t know quite who to blame. 

I didn’t hang around, I moved to a bigger smoke, and a more variegated, bohemian-student world. My problems of ‘fitting in’ didn’t exactly go away, but I was becoming more reconciled to my ‘loner’ identity. And of course I was educating myself more about politics, economics and history. But always I’ve been concerned about the most vulnerable, the least advantaged, those who ‘lucked out’ in our society. This goes with my views on free will, and on nationalism. We don’t get to choose our parentage, or the where and when of our birth. I politely decline to sing songs about how wonderful and unique ‘my’ country is, because I know that if I was born in another country on the other side of the world I’d be pressured to sing songs about its splendour and specialness. I feel lucky to be a citizen of two peaceful and developed countries, just as I feel lucky to have been born a human rather than a mosquito. I feel lucky to be alive when all this new knowledge is being uncovered, in astronomy, in neurology, in palaeontology and so much else, though I feel unlucky to have been born in 1956 rather than 1996, or even later.

But the implications of this matter of luck seem to me enormous, and they’re essential to my political views. For example, they largely define my views on education, health, welfare, immigration and the justice system. To me, one of the major roles of a political state is to do its best to mitigate, for its members, the destructive effects of bad luck. 

Broadly speaking, the history of politics has ever been the battle between the left and the right – patricians v plebeians, socialists v libertarians, progressives v traditionalists, Labor v Conservative, Republicans v Democrats, with independents ranged across the political spectrum. Those who want to do more for their people v those who want to let people do for themselves, and various other polarities. Of course, not all these categories are the same on each side of the v sign, which raises all sorts of questions. Where does business and capitalism fit in? What about the environmental movement? What about globalism and its detractors? 

My views on many of these matters aren’t well-formulated – or I should say, in a more self-boosting way, they’re not hard and fast. However, the application of a basic rule of thumb – ‘try to reduce the effect of bad luck’, is, I think, a useful starting point. For example, a taxation system that tries to reduce disadvantage in terms of education and healthcare is important, but one that heavily reduces incentives for businesses and entrepreneurs may ultimately affect productivity and the wealth from which taxation can be drawn. At the same time it’s dangerous to fall for the line of the ‘haves’, that tax breaks for the ‘deserving rich’ will ultimately benefit all through greater employment and opportunity. The rich, I’ve noticed, like very much to keep it in the ‘family’ – gated communities being the most in-your-face symbol of the trickle-across effect. 

Governing isn’t easy, especially under the constant scrutiny of vested interests – and that means everyone. One of the major difficulties I’ve noticed is that some scrutineers, e.g. the Rupert Murdochs of this world – are vastly mote powerful than others, so money and influence are always at play – and those in most need are always those who have least influence. It’s easy to lose sight of that – though many conservatives aren’t worried about that, they often see their rich supporters as a natural elite, and the strengthening of that elite as their natural duty in government.

I know this is a bitsy sort of essay – I don’t have an ideology as such, but I do have some strong views, against ideology and for pragmatism, against adversarialism and for collaboration, against realpolitik and nationalism and for the more voiceless and lucked out members of our species – often the victims of realpolitik. I’m also for the progress of science and technology against the fearful or dismissive or wilfully ignorant naysayers. I know I’ve just contradicted myself, seemingly, in speaking for  collaboration and then couching issues in for/against terms, but of course you must have core beliefs to bring to a negotiation, which you can present for consideration while considering and questioning the views of the opposition, as they question yours. And those who aren’t prepared to listen – and I can name quite a few – shouldn’t be allowed at the table. 

I like the approach of Aristotle – first you work out your ethics (the particular or individual) then apply it to politics, the general. Of course, the first thing to note, as you try to work out what you should do, is that it must be in relation to others, the general. Without that ‘general’, which is life itself, not just humanity, as natural selection has taught us, we individuals wouldn’t be here. So the relationship between the individual and the general is necessarily dialectical, but it starts off with that personal question. And there is always that tension, for progressives – those who believe in pushing forward not yearning backward – between that forward movement and responsibility for the luckless strugglers, those so easily left behind. It makes for a very difficult task for those well-meaning politicians I admire. Scientific, technological and intellectual progress is happening at a more rapid clip than ever before, but it’s spreading the spectrum ever wider, not just between the haves and have nots, but between attitudes towards and against that progress, between adoring enthusiasm and hate-filled fear. 

So. I’m not a conservative. I want to embrace the future, to help make it happen. I want it to improve the lot of the majority, especially of those whose lot needs most improving, so that they can share in enthusiasm for the future. I want women to rule the majority of the world, because I believe this would improve humanity, and the world. I want to avoid warfare as much as humanly possible, because the costs are always borne by those who can least afford them. I want to challenge the power of self-serving elites, and to shake their complacency. I want people to think about and recognise the consequences of their actions – especially those with power over others. The future will happen, and we can choose to face forward, and put our hands to those shaky and complicated controls, or to look away and pretend it’s not happening. It’s not much of a choice really. 

Written by stewart henderson

September 23, 2018 at 2:25 pm

exploring oxygen

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I’d much prefer choccy cigars

 

I’ve been reading David Beerling’s fascinating but demanding book The Emerald Planet, essentially a history of plants, and their contribution to our current life-sustaining atmosphere, and it has inspired me to get a handle on atmospheric oxygen in general and the properties of this rather important diatomic molecule. Demanding because, as always, basic science doesn’t come naturally to me so I have to explain it to myself in great detail to really pin it down, and then I forget. For example, I don’t have any understanding of oxidation right now, though I’ve read about it, and probably written about it, and more or less understood it, many times. Things fall apart, and then we fall apart…

Okay, let me pull myself together. Oxygen is a highly reactive gas, combining with other elements readily in a number of ways. A bushfire is an example of oxidation, in which free oxygen is ‘consumed’ rapidly, reacting with carbon in the dry wood to produce carbon dioxide, among other gases. This is also called combustion. Rust is a slower form of oxidation, in which iron reacts with oxygen to form iron oxide. So I think that’s basically what oxidation is, the trapping of ‘free’ oxygen into other gases or compounds, think carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, hydrogen peroxide, etc etc. Not to mention its reaction with hydrogen to form water, that stuff that makes up more than half our bodily mass. 

Well, I’m wrong. Oxidation doesn’t have to involve oxygen at all. Which I think is criminally confusing. Yes, fire and rust are examples of oxidation reactions, but so is a reaction between hydrogen and fluorine gas to produce hydrofluoric acid (it’s actually a redox reaction – hydrogen is being oxidised and fluorine is being reduced). According to this presumably reliable definition, ‘oxidation is the loss of electrons during a reaction by a molecule, atom or ion’. Reduction is the opposite. The reason it’s called oxidation is historical – oxygen, the gas that Priestley and Lavoisier famously argued over, was the first gas known to engage in this sort of  behaviour. Basically, oxygen oxidises other elements, getting them to hand over their electrons – it’s an electron thief. 

Oxygen has six valence electrons, so needs another two to feel ‘complete’. It’s diatomic in nature, existing around us as O2. I’m not sure how that works – if each individual atom wants two electrons, to make eight electrons in its outer shell for stability, why would it join with another oxygen to complete this outer shell, and then some? That makes for another four electrons. Are they now valence electrons? Apparently not, in this stable diatomic form. Here’s an expert’s attempt to explain this, from Quora

For oxygen to have a full outer shell it must have 8 electrons in it. But it only has 6 electrons in its valence shell. Each oxygen atom is actively seeking to get more electrons to complete its valence shell. If no other atoms except oxygen atoms are available, each oxygen atom will try to wrestle extra valence electrons from another oxygen atom. So if one oxygen atom merges with another, they “share” electrons, giving both a full outer shell and ultimately being virtually unreactive.

For a while this didn’t make sense to me, mathematically. Atomic oxygen has eight electrons around one nucleus. Six in the outer, ‘valence’ shell. Molecular oxygen has 16 electrons around two nuclei. What’s the configuration to make it stable? Presumably both nuclei still have 2 electrons configured in their first shells, that makes 12 electrons to make for a stable configuration, which doesn’t seem to work out. Did it have something to do with ‘sharing’? Are the shells configured now around both nuclei instead of separately around each nucleus? What was I missing here? Another expert on the same website writes this:

[The two oxygen atoms combine to] create dioxygen, a molecule (O2) in which both oxygen atoms have 8 valence electrons, so they are happy (the molecule is stable).

But what about the extra electrons? It seems I’d have to give up on understanding and take the experts’ word, and I hate that. However, the Khan academy has come to the rescue. In video 14 of his chemistry series, Khan explains that the two atoms share two pairs of electrons, so yes, sharing was the key.  So each atom can ‘kind of pretend’, in Khan’s words, that they have eight valence electrons. And this is a covalent bond, unlike an ionic bond which combines metals with non-metals, such as sodium and chloride. 

Anyway, moving on. One of the most important features of oxygen, as mentioned, is its role in water – which is about 89% oxygen by weight. But how do these two elements – diatomic molecules as we find them in our environment – actually come together to form such a very different substance?

Well. According to this video, when H2 and O2, and presumably other molecules, are formed

electrons lose energy to form the new orbitals, the energy gets away as a photon, and then the new orbitals are stuck that way, they can’t undo themselves until the missing energy comes back.

This set me on my heels when I heard it, I’d never heard anything like it before, possibly because photon stuff tends to belong to physics rather than chemistry, though photosynthesis rather undoes that argument…

So, sticking with this video (from Brigham Young University Physics Department), to create water from H2 and O2 you need to give them back some of that lost energy, in the form of ‘activation energy’, e.g by ‘striking a match’. The video turns out to be kind of funny/scary, and it again involves photons. After the explosion, water vapour was found condensing on the inside of the glass through which hydrogen was pumped and ignited…

Certainly the demonstration was memorable (and there are a few of these explosive vids online), but I think I need more theory. Hopefully I’ll get back to it, but it seems to have much to do with the strong covalent bonds that form, for example, molecular hydrogen. It requires a lot of energy to break them. 

Once formed, water is very stable because the oxygen’s six valence electrons get two extras, one from each of the hydrogens, while the hydrogens get an extra electron each. The atoms are stuck together in a type of bonding called polar covalent. Oxygen is more electronegative than hydrogen, meaning it attracts electrons more strongly – the negative charge is polarised at the oxygen, giving that part of the molecule a partial negative charge, with a proportional positive charge at the hydrogens. I might explore the effects of this polarity in another post.

The percentage of oxygen in our atmosphere seems stable at 21% – that’s to say, it appears to be the same now as when I was born, but that’s not a lot of time, geologically. The issue of oxygen levels in our atmosphere over geological time is complex and contested, but the usual story is that something happened with the prokaryotic life forms that had evolved in the oceans billions of years ago, some kind of mutation which enabled a bacterial species to capture and harness solar energy. This green mutation, cyanobacteria, gave off gaseous oxygen as a waste product – a disaster for other life forms due to its highly reactive nature. The photosynthesising cyanobacteria, however, multiplied rapidly, oxygenising the ocean. Oxygen reacted with the ocean’s iron, creating layers of rust (iron oxide) on the ocean floor, later visible on land through tectonic forces over the eons. Gradually over time, other organisms evolved that were adapted to the new oxygen-rich atmosphere. It became an energy source, which in turn produced its own waste product, carbon dioxide. This created a near-perfect cycle, as cyanobacteria required CO2 as well as water and sunlight to produce oxygen (and sugar). Other photosynthesising water-based and land-based life forms, plants in particular, emerged. In fact, these life forms had harnessed cyanobacteria as chloroplasts, a process known as endosymbiosis. 

I’ll end this bitsy post with the apparent fact, according to this Inverse article, that our oxygen levels are actually falling, and have been for near a million years, and that’s leaving aside the far greater effects due to human activity (fossil fuel burning consumes oxygen and releases CO2). Of course oxygen is very vastly more abundant in the atmosphere than CO2, and the change is minuscule on the overall scale of things (unlike the change we’re making to CO2 levels). It will make much more of a difference in the oceans however, where the lack of dissolved oxygen is creating dead zones. The article explains:

 The primary contributor to these apocalyptic scenes is fertilizer runoff from agriculture, which causes algal blooms, providing a great feast for bacteria that consume oxygen. The abundance of these bacteria cause O2 levels to plummet, and if they go low enough, organisms that need it to survive swim away or die.

Just another of the threats to sea-life caused by humans. 

Written by stewart henderson

September 16, 2018 at 4:20 pm

Posted in environment, science

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waiting for Mueller – the many and varied problems for Trump

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There are undoubtedly billions of worthier subjects to focus on than Trump, but I do find it hard to look away for long from the slow-moving train wreck – and I’m still nursing my prediction that he’ll be out by year’s end. Of course I keep stumbling at obstacles, and anything that gets in the way of justice being the same for everyone seems to me an unnecessary and illegitimate obstacle. Now it’s this ridiculous notion that you shouldn’t charge a President around election time. It’s bullshit. It should be absolutely clear that you should charge any felon precisely when all is in order to charge him, no matter what time of year it is.

But that apparently isn’t how it goes in the USA, and so we have to wait for two whole months to bring charges, assuming this ‘etiquette’ is followed. And then what happens after the mid-term fall-out? Too close to Christmas?

Needless to say, I’m completely opposed to the truly criminal notion that you can’t charge a head of state while in office. Only in America is such a notion even thinkable – a testament to one of the worst political systems in the western world.

Anyway, no sense bemoaning a system that the US Congress, fourth estate and intelligentsia are too jingoistic to even be capable of examining let alone reforming. So instead I’ll focus here on the legal jeopardy Trump finds himself in from various directions, as we wait for the Mueller team to hopefully finish him off.

Firstly the Michael Cohen case. Cohen is currently out on bail awaiting sentencing on eight criminal counts he has pleaded guilty to. According to this article in The Hill, from August 21, Cohen won’t be sentenced until December 12, which seems an eternity to me. It’s expected that he’ll do a fair amount of jail time.

What has this to do with Trump? Cohen was his fixer and I’m not sure how many of the felonies he’ll be sentenced on relate to Trump or his organisation. Some reports claim that more than one felony relates to the 2016 campaign. What is clear is that Cohen seems bent on revenge for the way Trump, who never treated him particularly well in spite of his loyalty, dropped him like a hot potato shortly after Cohen’s offices and home were raided by the FBI. In pleading guilty to one charge of campaign violations relating to the Stormy Daniels payment, Cohen implicated Trump as the person who directed his activities. This should have led directly to Trump’s arrest, but for some reason this hasn’t happened. In any case it stands to reason that whatever Cohen’s sentence on this particular count, Trump’s should be greater, as the ‘Mr Big’ in this case.

Of course Trump’s legal jeopardy from the Cohen direction is probably, or hopefully, more considerable than just the Stormy matter. Cohen struck a plea deal with the SDNY, clearly in the hope of getting a lighter sentence in return for dirt on Trump, but the plea deal seems to have been minimal, most likely because the Mueller team, who are surely in close contact with SDNY, have enough dirt on Trump already (particularly from the raid on Cohen’s offices and home, conducted by the SDNY, but nothing prevents the FBI from sharing information – in fact such sharing is essential), and they don’t like working with criminals if they can help it. Still, they may call on Cohen if they need to, which all spells trouble for Trump. Meanwhile, Emily Jane Fox writes In Vanity Fair (September 11) that Cohen’s attorney is set to meet New York State tax officials who are looking into the Trump Organisation’s finances. Hopefully Cohen will have more damning stuff on that topic. I should also add that it’s this SDNY probe into Cohen that has granted immunity to the CFO of the Trump Organisation, as well as to David Pecker, chief of the National Enquirer, a gutter mag dedicated to spruiking Trump’s ‘qualities’ and to ‘catching and killing’ negative stories about him. So, more legal jeopardy there.

Secondly, on those New York State tax officials. A Washington Post article from July 20 revealed that the state’s tax agency is investigating Trump’s personal charity (sic), the Trump Foundation. New York’s embattled governor, Andrew Cuomo, who appears to have launched the investigation under pressure from constituents, has said that the probe could lead to criminal charges. Trump’s children would be involved as well as himself.

Thirdly, the tax probe comes on the heels of a civil suit, filed in June by the New York Attorney-General, claiming that Trump and three of his children ran a charity ‘engaged in persistently illegal conduct.’ The Attorney-General’s department has been considering pursuing criminal charges, but apparently there’s a race to become the next Attorney-General there, and the Democratic candidates are all promising to go after Trump if elected. They’re hoping to focus on the Emoluments Clause in the Constitution, which is altogether a good thing. Not being well up on how the US electoral system works, I’m not sure how long it will take for this all to be sorted, but it definitely looks like there will be an annihilation of Republicans in the mid-terms, and this Attorney-General race will be caught up in that. So, more trouble for Trump.

Fourthly, the next Manafort trial starts soon, and it involves Russia. Manafort is apparently trying to negotiate a plea deal as I write, one that won’t involve dumping on Trump, and won’t involve actually going through the trial process. It’s hard to imagine that happening. An article in Fortune, out yesterday (September 13) claims that a deal has more or less been struck, but it’s hard to imagine such a deal not involving Trump. This deal may be announced as early as today. Considering that the Mueller team holds all the cards – a slam-dunk set of convictions on the second trial, and the possibility of retrying the ten counts that were left undecided in the first trial, it’s hard to imagine that Mueller wouldn’t have extracted some damning evidence about Trump, the campaign, and Russian money in exchange for any deal. Maybe Trump won’t be touting Manafort as a ‘great guy’ for much longer – but on the other hand, Manafort may just be lookingfor a way to avoid the expense of a court case he can’t win, and he’s hanging out for a pardon from Trump.

And fifthly, the Mueller probe itself. I see it dividing into three parts – conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and financial crimes.

Conspiracy charges will depend on whether Trump and/or his campaign knew about the Russian interference in the 2016 elections, an interference amply documented in the two speaking indictments, in February and July of this year, which together charged 25 Russian individuals and three Russian companies with hacking of servers and hijacking of social media sites to influence the election outcome, entirely in Trump’s favour. No American citizens were charged, but other persons ‘known and unknown’ to the investigators were repeatedly mentioned. The second indictment also raised profound suspicions that the Trump campaign had knowledge of the hacking, because of certain dates matching comments at the time by Trump himself. Apart from this there is the meeting at Trump Tower on June 9 2016, which I personally think is less significant, but about which there have clearly been cover-ups and lies by the Trump campaign and administration, including by Trump himself. It has always appeared to me highly likely that Mueller has an abundance of material on this conspiracy.

On obstruction, although much of the focus here has been on the firing of James Comey for the illicit reason of trying to stop the Russia investigation, it seems clear to me that the relentless public attacks on the Mueller enquiry, the FBI and the DoJ, and the hounding of  specific officers within those departments, are all very serious cases of obstruction of justice, so flagrant and criminal in intent in fact that they should have warranted dismissal from office long ago. These are questions, of course, about the limits to free speech, but one would think that such limits would indeed apply to the Head of State when speaking of cases in which he himself is implicated. The more power you have to influence, the more responsibility you should bear in speaking of such institutions as investigating services, the judiciary and the free press, a matter which should be inscribed in law. In any case it’ll be interesting to see what the enquiry’s findings are on this topic. They should be fulsome.

On financial misdealings and any other bits and pieces of criminality that might be uncovered during the enquiry, There’s potentially a lifetime of stuff there. It’s pretty certain that Mueller has all the tax returns, and knows a thing or two about Deutsche Bank’s dodgy dealings with Trump. This is the most murky of areas, obviously, but there are outstanding financial experts on Mueller’s team who’ll be having a wonderful time joining all the dots.

So who knows when the fireworks will start, but I’ll be happy to be viewing them from a safe distance. Meanwhile I’ll try, really try, to focus on other things for a couple of months.

 

Written by stewart henderson

September 14, 2018 at 4:58 pm

the movements of the Earth, the ecliptic, the celestial sphere…

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Why does the Earth spin? Initial conditions plus Newton’s first law is the basic explanation. And from these it should be easy to guess that it’s slowing down as tiny but inexorable forces act upon it, and it will continue to do so unless something unforeseeable happens. The tidal friction caused by the moon, which itself is decreasing over time (or at least I assume so, since the moon is spiralling away from us) is the Earth’s principal brake. Some say that Earth has been gradually slowing down since the last great collision, which created the moon, and which left the planet spinning full circle every six hours, but I think that’s still speculative.

Anyway, we don’t just rotate (in an anti-clockwise direction), we revolve (anti-clockwise) around the sun on a plane tilted at 23.4 degrees from our spin – that’s tilted from the perpendicular. But why? And there’s this thing called precession, right? Spin a top, as I did as a kid, and the most successful spin will have the least precession – the smallest circle (actually a cone) around which the axis of rotation wobbles, but as the top slows that cone will widen until all falls in a heap. In the Earth’s case, it’s most commonly called the precession of the equinoxes, or ‘the wobble’ (maybe).

So the Earth moves in mysterious ways, and I’ve barely begun. It orbits the sun – why? Its orbit is elliptical – why? Its rotational and revolutionary speed vary – why? And what about other movements – the solar system, the galaxy, the universe?

A cool video I’ve been watching tells me something I’d never known or thought of before. We’re all on meridian lines, which pass through us in a north-south direction, from the north pole to the south pole. Lines of longitude. When the sun is at its highest point in the sky, at noon, it’s aligned perfectly with our meridian. The shadow it casts, our shadow, thus points precisely to the north or south pole, depending on the sun’s position north or south of ‘directly overhead’. If the sun is directly overhead, congratulations, you’re on the sub-solar point, and your shadow will disappear beneath your feet, so to speak. Right now the sub-solar point is a circular area in the Atlantic, a little north of the equator, and just touching land in west Africa. I doubt if we ever experience it here in Australia, as it seems to hang close to the equator.

The point to make here is one about time. As there’s a meridian line for just about everyone, it follows that everyone on a different meridian is experiencing a different time. Noon, or any other time, isn’t the same for everyone – but that’s massively inconvenient, so we’ve regularised time via zones, so we can do our business.

Looking again at our rotation, we might think we have it nailed at very close to 24 hours per full rotation, but not quite, for all is relative. The sun, for example, has its movements too, as does everything else. We’ve found that, measured from a distant star, one meridian completes a revolution in 23.9 hours, also known as a sidereal day. Our calendars, though, are based on the solar day. As the Earth turns, it moves forward in its revolution around the sun. So by the time it has turned 360 degrees it needs to spin a little more for the same spot to be facing the sun as was the case 24 hours before. That slightly greater than 360 degree turn is what we call the solar day. From our perspective it seems like an exact 360-degree turn because we’re facing the sun again, exactly as the day before. Or so it seems.

We revolve around the sun in an ellipse. Or not precisely around the sun. Kepler’s first law of planetary motion, presented to the world without fanfare in 1609, had it that all the planets traced an elliptical orbit around a focal line, with the sun as one of its end-points, or foci. And while we’re at it, let’s look at Kepler’s three laws and how they were arrived at. The second law, presented in the same year, states that ‘a line segment joining a planet to the sun will sweep out an equal area over an equal time interval’, and the third law, announced to a largely indifferent world in 1618, is perhaps less linguistically elegant, or at any rate simple: ‘The square of the orbital period of a planet is proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit.’ I ripped this from Wikipedia, the greatest gift to all dilettantes and autodidacts ever developed.

Kepler’s laws improved on those of Copernicus, but of course they accepted Copernicus’ heliocentric system as the basis. All Kepler really added was the eccentricity of planetary orbits, a minor detail really, but certainly an improvement. His laws weren’t presented as such at the time: they weren’t described as laws until Voltaire’s  publication of Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, no doubt largely the work of his intellectual superior, Emilie du Chatelet.

So, the first two laws. Kepler was given access to some of the detailed astronomical data of his employer Tycho Brahe, who asked him to calculate precisely the orbit of Mars. Tycho apparently withheld the bulk of his observations from Kepler, because he suspected him of being one of those upstart heliocentrists. Kepler wanted, for largely mystical reasons, to define the Mars orbit as a perfect circle, but after years of trying the calculations wouldn’t work out. What he did discover was that, although the orbital path wasn’t circular – the sun was sometimes further away, sometimes closer –  if you drew a line from Mars (or any other planet, including Earth) to the sun, and then another line, say exactly six days later, the triangle created always had the same area, no matter where you were in the orbit. For this to happen, the planet must be moving faster nearer the sun than when further from the sun. This was Kepler’s second law, which helped him to calculate the first. The planets’ orbits appeared to be elliptical. If the sun was offset from the centre of the planetary orbits, but still obviously essential to those orbits, then the offset could be calculated precisely such that all the planetary orbits fitted. And so it was. Most astronomers consider this to be his greatest contribution.

Kepler’s third law, with its interesting mathematical basis, provided the greatest inspiration to Newton:

The square of the orbital period of a planet is proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit.

P2 = a3

I rarely do maths here, but surely this one’s simple enough even for me! The orbital period (p) of a planet is the time it takes to make a complete revolution around the sun. Note that it’s a measure of time, not distance. The semi-major axis of an ellipse is half its longest diameter. In the special case of a circle, it would be the radius. This law enables us, apparently, to determine the distance of planets from the sun, though it appears to entangle time and space. Generally these distances are given in relative terms. with the Earth’s distance from the sun given the value 1 AU (astronomical unit). By that reckoning, the outermost planet, Neptune, has a value of 30.06 AU, approximately, according to one site providing such data. Similarly, we reckon the orbital period in Earth years. Neptune’s orbital period is 164.79 years. So, for Neptune, 164.79² = 30.0611³. Try it on a calculator and you’ll find it doesn’t quite work out, but this may be due to eccentricity of orbits, in time and space. Other sites have different figures. The Kepler equation seems to capture the pattern rather than the precise detail. It’s probable that the publication of logarithmic tables between Kepler’s calculation of the first two laws and the third was vital.

I’m of course no expert on any of this – go to more reputable sites for a more complete story, though you’ll probably find what I found – a fair amount of interesting confusion.

I’ll finish with the ecliptic. The Earth’s orbit sketches out an elliptical plane, which we call the ecliptic. Then again, the ecliptic is also described as the apparent motion of the sun in the sky with respect to the fixed stars – not to be confused with the apparent daily movement caused by Earth’s rotation. In fact Wikipedia describes the ecliptic as ‘the mean plane in the sky that the sun follows in the course of a year’, and Wikipedia is always way more right than I am in these matters, but it’s confusing. The plane can be visualised as stretching out into space, way beyond the actual orbit around the sun and bounded within a celestial sphere, with a ‘celestial equator’, on the same plane as Earth’s equator, also marking a circular section of the sphere at 23.4° from the ecliptic. The north-south celestial axis, an extension of Earth’s axis to the celestial sphere, is again at an angle of 23.4°, on average, from the north-south ecliptic axis, which runs perpendicular to the ecliptic plane.

There’s more, but I’ll stop at this. The ecliptic plane for Earth is an average, as there are always perturbations. The other planets don’t follow this ecliptic precisely, but they’re not too far away, probably as a result of uniforming forces at the creation of the solar system.

 

Written by stewart henderson

September 8, 2018 at 9:43 pm

some stuff about dinosaurs and their relationship to birds

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Archaeopteryx lithographica with its long bony tail – I took this pic myself at London’s Natural History Museum

Jacinta: Let’s talk about dinosaurs. Are they a thing?

Canto: Of course they are, what are you talking about?

Jacinta: Well I read recently in a New Scientist article that for quite some time in the recent past dinosaur experts didn’t really think ‘dinosaur’ existed as a scientific classification. A new way of classifying was needed because some dinosaurs were bird-hipped and some were lizard-hipped, though they were neither birds nor lizards. So, new names were required.

Canto: Right, so some had hips like lizards, but were clearly not lizards because they had anatomical features that set them apart, and the same went for those that had hips like birds?

Jacinta: Yes I think that’s right. Let’s talk as we learn. Bird-hipped dinos are ornithischians – think ornithology – and the lizardy ones are called saurischians. It was Harry Seeley who shook up the dinosaur-loving world back in 1887 when he argued, before the Royal Society, that what they’d thought were dinosaurs (a term coined by Richard Owen) were really two separate groups, based on those hip bones. Seeley was right about the two groups, but the term ‘dinosaur’, which of course has never disappeared in popular writing, has been rescued over time for science by agreement on other features which bespeak ‘dinosaur’. This has much to do with cladistics, which we may or may not discuss later.

Canto: So the first dinos appeared some 235 mya in the late triassic period, but interestingly they flourished between two major extinction events, the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event about 201 mya, a very sudden event that allowed dinosaurs to fill vacated ecological niches on land, and the Cretaceous-Paleogene (or Cretaceous-Teriary, or K-T) extinction event of 66 mya, which wiped out all the non-avian dinos.

Jacinta: And it should be mentioned that birds are now considered feathered avian dinosaurs, descended from earlier therapods, which strangely are saurischians (lizard-hipped), though a very recent and still controversial paper has reclassified them as ornithischians. I should also mention that dinosaur researchers are a notoriously feisty and bickering tribe, from what I’ve heard.

Canto: I’ve started ploughing through a course on dinosaurs via youtube – The Natural History of Dinosaurs – and I’ve already learned some words, just as background: lithify, diagenesis and coprolite. I’ll let you know if anything exciting crops up, but tell me more about birds being the only remaining dinosaurs and how we know that.

Jacinta: Well, it’s been known since at least the discovery of Archaeopteryx, the type specimen of which was found just two years after Darwin published The Origin of Species, that there are clear anatomical similarities between birds and non-avian dinosaurs. Feathers and hollow bones, for example. There’s also evidence that they share nesting and brooding behaviour. There are also relations with non-avian dinosaurs, some species of which also had feathers, and these discoveries are raising fascinating questions about the origin of flight in these creatures. Of course it’s all very controversial and some researchers are still holding out on the dinosaur-bird link, suggesting other archosaurs were the ancestors.

Canto: What’s an archosaur?

Jacinta: It means ‘ruling reptile’ and these are creatures which first emerged some 300 mya, and they’re the ancestors of living reptiles today. They’re also the ancestors of birds, and dinosaurs. So they’re a larger and older group. Presumably the hold-outs have reason to think birds emerged out of some reptilian line that was distinct from theropod dinosaurs. But that’s nothing to the arguments about the evolutionary steps that led from maniraptoran theropods (perhaps) to modern birds, or the arguments about the origin of flight. Now let me point out that theropods are a suborder of dinosaurs with hollow bones and three-toed limbs, which have long been classed as saurischians until this very recent paper discussed in the New Scientist article, which reclassifies them as ornithiscians. And this seems to be another step – if it holds – towards our understanding of the relationship between birds and their ancestral dinosaurs. An earlier but still pretty recent step were the discoveries, particularly out of China, of a number of fossilised dinosaurs with evidence of feathers, or proto-feathers, and all this, together with advances in analysing and categorising existing specimens using cladistics described in Wikipedia as ‘a method of arranging species based strictly on their evolutionary relationships, using a statistical analysis of their anatomical characteristics’.

Canto: I get very confused about all this. Weren’t there flying dinosaurs – we used to call them pterodactyls – and did they have feathers, or were their means of flight completely different? I seem to remember them depicted like gliders – I mean of the animal kind, with great flaps of skin to catch the wind… Of course that was long before any talk of feathered dinos.

Jacinta: Well hopefully I’ll get to that. Let me talk first about Archaeopteryx, which they reckon dates back to about 150 million years ago. It was probably about the size of a magpie, though there may have been different species of different size (only 11 fossil specimens have been discovered so far). They had feathers, but it’s not known whether they flew like modern birds (flapping flight) or merely glided. A recent study (which I’ve not read) has argued that their flight capabilities were quite limited. They had long, bony tails, which I’m assuming would’ve hampered long-term flight. Interestingly, complex and, for me, impossible-to-verify coloration analyses have presented evidence that the feathers of these critters were a matte black, at least predominantly. Of course it’s hard to prove all this conclusively with 150 million-year-old animals, but speculation and analyses continue, for example on the brain-case of one Archaeopteryx specimen, to determine whether it had a brain for flight (e.g. adequate eyesight, hearing and muscle manipulation). Most of this converges on a limited flight ability, but just how limited will be endlessly argued. And concerning the evolution of birds and flight, there’s a ‘trees-down’ theory (think of sugar gliders etc) and a ‘ground up’ theory. Where does Archaeopteryx fit with those alternatives? That’s still up for grabs.

Canto: Okay, so what about pterodactyls, are they still a thing? Dactyl means digit or finger, doesn’t it?

Jacinta: Winged finger. Yes, they’re a species of pterosaur, with thirty known specimens. They presumably achieved fame among the children of the world as the first-known flying dinosaurs – but they’re not dinosaurs. It’s confusing because ‘saur’ means ‘lizard’, and ‘dinosaur’ means ‘terrible lizard’ and ‘pterosaur’ means ‘winged  lizard’ and they all seem to be connected…

Canto: So what about their relation to birds? Any sign of feathers?

Jacinta: They may have had downy feathers here and there, but not for flight. Their wings were more like those of bats, and they were originally classified as an archaic type of bat. In fact, in the early days of taxonomy, many fossils that had vague similarities to the first pterodactyl fossils discovered in the late 18th century were wrongly designated as pterodactyls, which probably explains their general popularity. It has taken years and many improvements in analysis and dating to sort out the mess, and apparently it still hasn’t been sorted. Anyway, they’re not seen as ancestral to birds. But I may be wrong.

Canto: Wow. Disappointing.

Jacinta: So getting back to the origin of birds, the question of clavicles (collar bones) is important. Birds have wishbones (furculae), which are fused clavicles. The question of bird ancestry has hung on these clavicle bones to a large degree. They’re delicate bones, not easily preserved, and it was long thought that they didn’t exist in dinosaurs. This view has been completely overturned, and in fact most of our understanding about the relationship between birds and earlier dinosaurs come from skeletal studies, or re-examinations, as well as studies of musculature and internal organs, though of course it’s feathers that capture the public’s imagination. But of course there’s a lot of controversy about the how and when of bird evolution, and the evolution of flight, which you’d expect from such scant solid evidence together with intense scientific and public interest.

Canto: Well, I’ve learned something more than the little I knew before about dinosaurs. And their hips. I’ll watch the rest of The Natural History of Dinosaurs’, and we’ll speculate some more in a later post.

Written by stewart henderson

September 4, 2018 at 1:03 pm

Who will ultimately take responsibility for the boy-king?

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I’ve not read the book The dangerous case of Donald Trump, which seeks to highlight the POTUS’ mental health issues, because like many an ignoramus, I consider myself already an expert on these matters. The term ‘boy-king’, used by Sam Harris among others, sums up this individual quite nicely. ‘Spoilt brat’ is another term that comes to mind. It’s a term that would repay some simple analysis. Food, or a holiday, or a romantic evening, that is spoilt usually can’t be unspoiled. It’s gone, it’s done, you need to start again with another meal, another evening, another holiday. A spoilt child, unfortunately, is the same. He’s spoilt forever – that’s why early childhood is so important. I’m sure the psychologists analysing Trump have focused particularly on his childhood, as it is always key to understanding the adult, as the famous Dunedin longitudinal study and countless other studies have shown. Think also of a spectacular and tragic example – the Romanian orphans discovered after the fall of Ceausescu, not spoilt brats of course but permanently damaged by extreme neglect. And another – Masha Gessen’s  biography of Vladimir Putin provides insight into his horrifically malign personality through glimpses of a bizarre childhood in the devastated post-war city of St Petersburg.

I don’t know much about Trump’s childhood, but I imagine it to be very much like that of the proud patrician Coriolanus in one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. Coriolanus is both spoilt and il-treated by his mother, so that he struts about from the get-go with an air of privilege and power, a sense of self-importance which is completely unearned. Trump is much the same – too smart to actually learn anything, too important to need anyone’s advice. Of course, Coriolanus is a brave warrior, while Trump is a coward. And yet, in the field of business he’s also a scrapper, relishing the language of macho thuggery.

But enough of the literary guff, Trump’s less than adequate upbringing is plain to see in his solipsistic, tantrumming output. Amongst many screamingly serious red flags was his question to a military authority, ‘If we have all these nuclear weapons, why don’t we use them?’ Apparently he asked this question repeatedly. It’s a question an adolescent, or rather a pre-adolescent, might ask (most adolescents are pretty sophisticated these days). It can be interpreted two ways – he wasn’t being serious, he was just attention-seeking, or he was being serious and he genuinely couldn’t grasp the enormity of what he was saying. Both interpretations, and they could in some sense both be true, are indicative of a pre-adolescent mind-set. And by the way, so is his constant repeating of the same phrases, which reveal the lack of language skills of the pre-adolescent. And there are many other examples – the nasty name-calling, the transparency and ineptitude of his lies and attempted cover-ups, the neediness, the impulsiveness, the attention deficit, everything he says and does just about.

But here’s the problem I keep coming back to. Trump’s pre-adolescent behaviours have been on display since his pre-adolescent days, much more publicly than with your common or garden spoilt brat. So why was he ever allowed to make a tilt at what Americans would undoubtedly describe, with much reason, as the most responsible position on the face of this earth? THIS is the greatest conundrum of the Trump presidency. Americans like to argue that anybody can become President, as if that’s one of the things that makes America great. It’s a very very very very bad argument.

Another screamingly obvious point: this spoilt brat should be removed from office because, as a perpetual pre-adolescent, someone who will never become an adult, he’s totally incompetent for this position. Yes he has probably committed crimes, but that’s not why he should be removed. It’s because he’s actually just a little boy. He’s not responsible for his actions. It’s not his fault that can’t think clearly, that he’s impulsive and tunnel-visioned and profoundly insecure and pathologically self-absorbed. In fact, if he’s ever indicted, he should probably be tried as a minor, because that’s what he is. But that he is President, that will forever be America’s shame.

The famous fable of the Emperor’s new clothes comes to mind. In this variant, everybody tries to pretend they can’t see that their President is a little boy. Some of his long-time associates or playmates quite genuinely support him, are possibly quite genuinely oblivious of his profound stuntedness, perhaps because like is attracted to like. Others have found him a ‘useful idiot’ to be cynically manipulated for their own ends. Most of those opposed to him prefer to pretend he’s fully adult so that they can punish him and all his cronies to the full extent of the law. But another over-riding reason for all the pretence is that nobody around the President, or indeed in the whole country, wants to take responsibility for allowing a little boy to become their POTUS. A little boy who’d been quite clearly a little boy since he was a little boy, some sixty years ago. And it didn’t take anything like a degree in psychology to see it.

A spoilt, brattish, hurt little boy with the power of the POTUS in his hands is a very frightening thing. Bringing all this to an end isn’t going to be easy, but doing so as quickly and painlessly as possible has to be the highest priority.

And what about Pence? If Americans come to their senses and realize that all of a little boy’s political decisions, whether in office or before, should be invalidated because he’s a minor, then they’ll avoid the post-Trump disaster of President Pence. Will they do that? Very very unlikely. That would be a very adult undertaking indeed.

Written by stewart henderson

August 30, 2018 at 2:28 pm