an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

exploring genetics – Mendel, alleles and stuff

leave a comment »

Canto: So I’d like to know as much as I can about genetics before I die, which might be quite soon, so let’s get started. What’s the difference between genetics and genomics?

Jacinta: Okay, slow down – but I suppose that’s as good a place to start as anywhere. I recently listened to a talk about the human genome project, which was completed around 2003, and the number I heard the guy mention was 3 billion genes, or something. But according to videos and other sources, each human has between 20,000 and 25,000 genes – though I’ve found another FAQ which estimates 30,000. So I gather from this that our genome is the number of genes we might possibly have – in the whole human population? Which raises the question, how do we know that the human genome project has captured or mapped all of them.

Canto: So there’s an individual genome, peculiar to each of us, and a collective genome?

Jacinta: Errr, maybe. We’re 99.9% genetically identical to each other, supposedly. And if this sounds very paradoxical, we need to zoom in on the detail. And with that, I’ve discovered that the 3 billion refers to base pairs, sometimes called ‘units of DNA’. So what’s a base pair? Well, we need to start with the structure of DNA, the genetic molecule. That’s deoxyribonucleic acid, which is made up of basic components called nucleotides. A nucleotide of DNA consists of a sugar molecule, a phosphate group and a nitrogenous base. The bases come in four types – adenine, guanine, thymine, and cytosine (A, T, G and C). The sugar and phosphate groups provide structure, allowing the bases to form a long string of DNA. Bonds form between the bases to create a double strand of DNA – hence base pairs.

Canto: Here’s how the World Health Organisation defines genomics, obviously from a health perspective:

Genomics is the study of the total or part of the genetic or epigenetic sequence information of organisms, and attempts to understand the structure and function of these sequences and of downstream biological products. Genomics in health examines the molecular mechanisms and the interplay of this molecular information and health interventions and environmental factors in disease.

Now you might think that this definition could cover genetics too, and maybe we shouldn’t be too worried about the distinction. Maybe, in general, genomics is about sequences of genes, especially in detailing whole organisms, while genetics is more about individual genes.

Jacinta: Genomics is the much more recent term, first coined in the 1980s, whereas genetics and genes date back to before we knew about DNA as the genetic molecule. Going back to Mendel and all, though I don’t think he used the term, he talked about ‘factors’ or some such.

Canto: So we know that there’s DNA, and there’s also RNA, another building block of life. How old are they, and which came first? And can species replicate without these molecules?

Jacinta: Oh dear – we’ll get there eventually, maybe. Genomics deals with the whole complement of genes in an organism, which we’ve gradually realised is necessary to evaluate, say, how prone that organism is to contracting a disease, or developing some immuno-deficiency, because individual genes often don’t tell us much. And there’s also the matter of dominant and recessive genes. Which takes us to inheritance. All those genes are combined together on chromosomes, of which there are 23 pairs in humans, which we inherit from our parents, 23 chromosomes each.

Canto: Combined together? Can you  be more specific?

Jacinta: Okay, a chromosome is a thread-like structure, in which DNA is coiled around structural proteins called histones. Each chromosome has two ‘arms’, flowing from a constriction point called a centromere. These arms are labelled p and q. The p arm is shorter than the q. And these chromosomes contain genes, which may or may not code for proteins. The genes, as mentioned, consist of base pairs, which vary in number from hundreds to millions.

Canto: Okay, so what’s the difference between a gene and an allele?

Jacinta: Well, genes are codes for making proteins – and those proteins affect all sorts of things, to do with taste, smell, hair colour and type, height, and predisposition to various diseases, among many other things. You can call these things ‘traits’, which show up in our phenotype, our physical characteristics. And it should be pointed out that many of these traits are the results of not just one gene but different genes in combination. Now, as mentioned, these genes are in pairs of chromosomes – 23 pairs in humans. Now, say we isolate an area in a chromosome that codes for a particular trait. What about the other chromosome in that pair? Remember, each chromosome comes from a male or female parent, and they are different, genetically – or likely to be. That’s where alleles come in, and it takes us back to Mendel, who found that with pea plants, traits such as colour, or the alleles that carried those traits, could be dominant or recessive. So, for that trait, they could carry two dominant alleles, or two recessive alleles, or one of each. If one or both of those alleles is dominant, the trait will be expressed, but if both are recessive, it won’t be. But as I say, it’s more complicated than that, as traits expressed in phenotypes are generally carried by many genes.

Canto: So alleles are? – how to define them?

Jacinta: Google it mate. Here’s a quickly found definition: “each of two or more alternative forms of a gene that arise by mutation and are found at the same place on a chromosome”. So let’s continue with the work of Mendel. When we find a dominant trait, we use a capital, T. It might be paired with another dominant trait, TT, or with a recessive trait, Tt. On the other hand, both traits might be recessive, tt, and that’s all the combos you have, for single traits. Now, in noting this, and the way that alleles combine, Mendel came up with a ‘law of segregation’. Or rather, he noticed a process, which later became recognised as a law. In fact, he observed three fundamental processes, ‘segregation’, ‘independent assortment’, and ‘dominance’, which we now describe as laws. Now, I’ve used the term ‘trait’ but perhaps I should’ve used the term ‘allele’. So TT combines two dominant alleles. The law of segregation has been stated thus:

During gamete formation, the alleles for each gene segregate from each other such that each gamete formed carries only one allele for each gene.

Canto: Right. Uhhh, what’s a gamete again?

Jacinta: Sex cells, which carry only one copy of each chromosome. They’re created during meiosis, after which we end up with four cells each with only one allele for each gene. So indeed, alleles are segregated during gamete formation.

Canto: Oh dear. I’ll have to brush up on meiosis.

Jacinta: So now we have these segregated alleles, which will be recombined. The law of independent assortment comes next. This also occurs during meiosis. In the fourth or metaphase period of cell division, the chromosomes align themselves on the equatorial plane, also called the metaphase plate. This alignment is random, and that’s the key to the law of independent assortment – ‘genes for different traits assort independently of each other during gamete formation’. But obviously Mendel knew nothing about meiosis, though it was first observed in his lifetime, in sea urchins . Anyway, this law allows for many different combinations of alleles depending on how chromosomes become aligned on the metaphase plate. A dihybrid cross will provide more such combinations.

Canto: A dihybrid cross? Please explain.

Jacinta: Well, a monohybrid cross will be like this – TT x tt. Not much to be assorted there. A dihybrid cross might be like this – TtCc x TtCc, creating four different assortments for each cross. So now to the third law, of dominance. This law simply states that ‘some alleles are dominant while others are recessive. An organism with at least one dominant allele displays the effect irrespective of the presence of the recessive one’. So the phenotype will present the dominant allele regardless of whether it’s double-dominant or single-dominant. Though the terms used are homozygous (TT), or heterozygous (Tt).

Canto: So are we going to look at punnett squares now? I’ve heard of them…

Jacinta: Well it might help. They were named after a bloke called Punnett back in 1905, the early days of Mendelian genetics. They’re neat little tables, that can start to get quite complicated, for determining the genotypes of offspring, when you breed dominant with recessive, heterozygous with homozygous and so on. It’s useful for simple genotypes, but when genotypes are multifactorial, as they often are, other methods are obviously required.

Canto: Okay, that’s more than enough to absorb for now.

Jacinta: I think, since we’ve started with Mendel, we might do a historical account. Or maybe not….

References

https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=alleles&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8

https://byjus.com/biology/mendel-laws-of-inheritance/

https://www.yourgenome.org/facts/what-is-meiosis

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

May 29, 2022 at 8:04 am

Posted in alleles, Mendel

Tagged with , , , ,

vive les bonobos

leave a comment »

I’ve written a lot about a bonobo future for humans, but what about the future of real bonobos? How long will they have one in the wild?

It’s likely the bonobo population has never been large. Their range has always been limited, presumably because they’ve inhabited a fertile niche south of the Congo River, and have had no reason to stray from it. All wild bonobos happen to inhabit one human country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The geographic range of chimpanzees, of which there are four sub-species, includes nineteen countries throughout west and east-central Africa. Both species are on the endangered list. The World Wildlife Fund has estimated the population at between 10,000 and 50,000 and declining. It’s a large margin for error, due to the difficulties of trying to track numbers in one of the most dangerous locations on the planet. It’s probable that the numbers today are well to the lower end of that spectrum. They have a slow reproduction rate, poaching and habitat loss are a perennial issue, and there’s the common notion in faraway regions such as China and South-East Asia that these ‘exotic’ creatures make for prestigious pets or that their body parts provide miraculous remedies. The live trade is generally in infants, which more often than not involves killing their parents. They’re not all being shipped overseas however – bonobo ‘charms’ (whatever they are) are quite common in the Congo itself, according to WWF and other sources.

Many of the DRC’s humans are fighting for survival themselves, and are competing with bonobos for forest resources, so deforestation is an issue. But the live trade is much more lucrative than that for bushmeat. Most of their habitat is unprotected, and the natives are not necessarily aware that they’re breaking the law, if in fact they are, in capturing these animals. Here’s a grim description of the situation from the wildlife website Mongabay:

Dead apes are chopped up and sold for meat and body parts. Meat is generally consumed by middle- to upper-class urban families, as well as foreigners living there. … On average, a kilo of such meat would cost between $20 to $40 in local markets … prices vary according to species and size. Body parts such as the skin, hands, and head are used as medicine and in spiritual rituals… The head takes the highest price at between $500 and $1,500, and hands between $20 and $50 each.

Trying to save and defend bonobos in the DRC is a dangerous business. The war-torn country is over-supplied with deadly weaponry, and it’s difficult to win people over to conservation when they are so impoverished and the trade is so lucrative. Improving the lives of the native human population is probably more important than education, but little appears to be happening in that regard. The natives have formed gangs to facilitate the trade, and conservationists have received death threats. The general corruption of the government is obviously a problem too, though international exposure may help to turn things around. The first nationally announced arrest of hunters only occurred in 2019.

Still, there are many conservationists working for a brighter future for bonobos. The Bonobo Conservation Initiative has for a long time been promoting indigenous leadership in land management for biodiversity in bonobo habitats, in particular the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve. The plan is to extend this reserved area into a Bonobo Peace Forest, ‘a constellation of community-based reserves in the Congo rainforest supported by sustainable development’. Ecotourism is seen as a key to providing a future for both the bonobos and the human communities of the region, but this is a delicate issue, as the natural life-style of our cousins needs to be maintained. The DRC itself needs international support – it has suffered devastation in the past from the worst forms of colonialist exploitation, and it has never been properly compensated. Now, the nation is, hopefully, beginning to realise what a treasure lies within its forests. Vive les bonobos!

References

Images from a dropped phone reveal the ugly truth behind bonobo trafficking

https://www.awf.org/blog/endangered-bonobo-africas-forgotten-ape

https://www.worldwildlife.org/magazine/issues/spring-2018/articles/charting-a-future-for-bonobos

https://www.bonobo.org/news-and-knowledge/appeal-2019

Click to access projdoc.pdf

 

Written by stewart henderson

May 15, 2022 at 5:11 pm

Posted in bonobos, conservation

Tagged with

omicron omicron omicron

leave a comment »

So I haven’t written about Covid for some time, and it hasn’t gone away, though I’ve managed to avoid it myself. I’m recovering from a bacterial infection which played havoc with my bronchiectasis, and had me coughing and sneezing so much that I felt for a few days that my usually life-saving course of antibiotics, together with steroids, wouldn’t be enough. I asked for a referral to a pulmonologist/respiratory specialist, but discovered that, due to Covid, they’re almost impossible to access. Anyway, I’m on a puffer and on the mend.

So according to worldometer’s coronavirus website, which I’ve regularly used, there have been about 6 and a quarter million deaths from Covid19, but the latest New Scientist podcast (118) informs me that there have been nearly 15 million deaths. That’s a huge discrepancy, and I suspect these rubbery figures will be a feature for years. What’s certainly true is that the various forms of this virus are going to be with us for some time. The latest Omicron sub-variants emanating from South Africa, BA.4 and BA.5 are still being monitored for their infectivity. Omicron in general (first discovered in Botswana) is a variant of concern, which has led to a new spike in cases, but it generally appears to be less lethal, though whether this is because most people, here in Australia at least, have been immunised, I’m not sure. Anyway, winter is on its way here, and I’m a bit worried. New covid cases are up by 127% in the USA in the last month, with hospitalisations up by 28% according to their ABC news. Omicron is mostly the culprit. Numbers are probably under-reported because effective testing has gone out the window. They’re testing waste water to measure the prevalence. In New Zealand, the Director-General of Health is warning of a new winter peak. Case numbers have bottomed there at a higher level than expected, and are now slightly on the rise. And of course not all cases are being reported, which would be expected with mild cases. In fact the DGH suggests that might amount to about half the cases. Influenza A is also on the rise there.

Omicron reproduces in the airways much much more rapidly than previous variants so it will pass quickly between people before they even know it, plus the mutation upon mutation will probably have rendered previous vaccines, and the antibodies they produce, less effective. Its precise infectiousness is hard to calculate because so many who are infected either aren’t aware of it or don’t report it. Animal studies of Omicron are showing that it goes into the lung less readily than previous variants, which is a relief to me at least, and probably a relief to most. But we shouldn’t describe it as a mild variant. There’s also the long Covid issue, which, being long, will take a long time to get a handle on. And there’s also the unvaccinated, who are more likely to be hospitalised. Of course, if you survive infection this will boost your immunity in future, at least for that particular variant. But it may well be the case that the virus will become endemic, that it’s on its way to being so.

It’s worth knowing some of the terminology regarding viruses and their mutations. They mutant constantly of course, though not always viably. Viable mutations will mutate further, and once they’ve gone further from the original they’re classed as a different lineage. That’s steps away from being classed as a variant, which is a lineage that has enhanced capability of infecting and causing damage to hosts. Omicron, because of its increased infectivity, is producing more lineages, and subsequently more variants. So we’re seeing reinfections, almost regardless of vaccination – depending no doubt on number and timing of vaccinations. The situation in South Africa is being watched, because they seem to be ahead in new infection rates. But there are concerns everywhere – at the end of April a new Omicron sub-variant, BA 2.12.1, was found in wastewater here in Australia (in Victoria). It’s deemed more transmissible, but no more severe, than previous variants. It should be noted, though, that influenza viruses still mutate more than four times faster than these Omicron variants, on average. However, some variants seem to have a brief ‘sprint’ period of high tranmissibility. Also, variants can arise through recombination. This appears to have occurred with the Omicron XE variant, the result of ‘two omicron strains merging together in a single host and then going on to infect others’. The genes of one variant can combine successfully with another infecting the host at the same time, and then spread to other hosts. There’s also been a ‘Deltacron’ recombinant variant.

Some 60 mutations have been identified since the original SARS-Cov2 virus was detected in Wuhan. 32 changes in the spike protein have been identified. This is the protein that attaches to human cells, and has been the principal target of vaccines.

The latest worry is the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 sub-variants, which ‘threaten to trigger a new wave of COVID-19 infections in South Africa’, according to the VaccinesWork website, but the good news is that antibodies produced by those who had been vaccinated against COVID-19 were more effective than those from people who had recovered from natural infection. Vaccines work indeed. Still, the number of cases are rising. It may be due to waning immunity or increased infectivity or both. We can only continue to monitor the situation – it’s certainly not over yet. What an incredible journey this has been, and the fallout from reduced food production and other economic constraints is another problem for the future.

References

https://theconversation.com/whats-the-new-omicron-xe-variant-and-should-i-be-worried-180584

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/06/why-are-there-so-many-new-omicron-sub-variants-like-ba4-and-ba5-is-the-virus-mutating-faster

https://www.gavi.org/vaccineswork/five-things-weve-learned-about-ba4-and-ba5-omicron-variants

 

Written by stewart henderson

May 15, 2022 at 4:36 pm

democracy, women and bonobos

leave a comment »

Jacinta Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand

Some people out there might not think that democracy is the best system, but I’d say that, given the crooked timber of humanity and all that, it’s probably the best we can come up with. One of its major problems, as I see it, is its adversarial, or partisan nature. Modern democracies are generally about two major parties, left and right, with power swinging on a more or less regular basis from one side to another. On the other hand, many European nations have evolved multi-party systems, with fragile coalitions always threatening to break apart, and negotiations often bogging down and ending with decisions nobody is particularly happy about, or so it seems. While this can be a problem, so can the opposite, when one party’s decisions and initiatives are swept aside holus bolus by a new government with a polar opposite ideology.

When I occasionally check out social media, I’m disheartened by the number of commentators for whom party x can do no right, and party y can do no wrong. It almost seems as if everybody wants to live in a one-party state – their party. This is a problem for a state which is diverse and necessarily interconnected. That’s to say, for any modern state. And of course there are other problems with representative democracies – generally related to wealth and power. Parliamentarians are rarely truly representative of their constituents, each vote rarely represents one value, and cronyism has always been rife.

And then there’s the maleness of it all. It’s not just that the percentage of women in parliament is always less than the percentage in the general population, but the movers and shakers in the business community, notorious for their pushy lobbying, are invariably male. And then there’s the military, an ultra-male bastion which must have its place…

So here’s a ridiculous thought experiment. Imagine a cast-iron law comes in, dropped from the heavens, that for the next 200 years, no male is allowed to be part of any government of any stripe. Women must, and will, make up every political decision-making body on the planet. Sure they can have the odd male advisor and helpmeet, but they seem to find female advice more congenial and useful. And let’s imagine that in this thought experiment, the males don’t mind their secondary roles at all. They just see it as the natural order of things. After two hundred years, from the point of our current ever-expanding technological and scientific knowledge (which women and men will continue to fully participate in), where will be in terms of war and peace, and our custodianship of the biosphere?

I told you this was ridiculous, but you don’t have to be a professional historian to realise that a more or less unspoken ban on female participation in government has existed historically in many countries for a lot more than a couple of centuries. And we’ve survived – that’s to say, those of us that have survived. Sorry about the tens of millions of Chinese that Mao starved to death in his Great Leap Forward. Sorry about the genocides of Stalin, Hitler, Leo Victor, Talaat Pasha, Pol Pot and Suharto, not to mention Genghis Khan and countless other known or unknown historical figures, again invariably male.

So returning to that thought experiment, we could take the easy option and say we don’t know how things would turn out – certainly not in any detail. But that’s surely bullshit. We know, don’t we? We know that the world, and not just the human world, would be a far far better place in the event of female leadership than it is today.

The evidence is already coming in, as creepingly as female leadership. I recently learned of the Democracy Index, a sophisticated worldwide survey of nations conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the people who publish the Economist magazine, among other things. The survey annually measures and ranks 168 nations according to their democratic bona fides, or lack thereof. I haven’t looked into the details about how they make their decisions, but the criteria appear to be reasonable. The nations are divided broadly into four categories. The top 21 are described as ‘full democracies’, the second category are the ‘flawed democracies’, the third are ‘hybrid regimes’ and the last and largest grouping are the ‘authoritarian regimes’. But when I looked at the very top ranking countries I found something very interesting, which prompted me to do a little more research.

In 2017, just under 10% of the world’s leaders were female. The percentage may have grown since then, but clearly not by much. We could be generous and say 13-14% at present. There are some difficulties in defining ‘nation’ as well as ‘leadership’, but let’s go with that number. So I had a look at the rankings on the Democracy Index, and the leadership of various countries on the index and what I found was very enlightening. Of the 21 countries rated as full democracies on the Democracy Index, seven of them were led by women. That’s 33%, quite out of proportion to the percentage of female leaders in general. But it gets better, or worse, depending in how you look at it. Of the top ten democracies on the list, six were led by women. Sixty percent of the top ten. Narrow it down still further, and we find that four of the top five democratic nations – which, in order, are Norway, New Zealand, Finland, Sweden and Iceland, are led by women – 80 per cent. It’s almost ridiculous how successful women are at making things work.

So what about the bottom of the barrel – the Afghanistans, the Burmas, etc. Of the 59 nations characterised as authoritarian by the Democracy Index, (though I prefer to call them thugocracies), zero are led by women. That’s nothing to crow about.

So, bonobos. The females, who are as small compared to their male counterparts as female humans are, dominate through solidarity. The result is less stress, less fighting, less infanticide, less killing and rape, less territoriality, and more sharing, more togetherness, more bonding, more love, if you care to call it that.

We don’t know anything much about the last common ancestor we share equally with chimps and bonobos. We don’t know about how violent Homo erectus or Homo habilis or the Australopithecines were, within their own species. We may never know. We do know that chimp troupes have gone to war with each other, with unbridled savagery, and we have evidence, from sites such as the Pit of Bones in northern Spain, of human-on-human killing from near half a million years ago. Our supposedly great book of moral teaching, the Hebrew Bible, describes many scenes of slaughter, sometimes perpetrated by the god himself. So it seems obvious that we’ve gone the way of the chimpanzee. Our worst leaders seem determined to continue the tradition. Our best, however, are making a difference. We need to make their numbers grow. Let’s make those female leaders multiply and see what happens. It may just save our species, and many others.

References

A bonobo world and other impossibilities 25: women and warfare (2)

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

Written by stewart henderson

May 13, 2022 at 10:48 am

on the origin of the god called God, part 2: the first writings, the curse on women, the jealous god

leave a comment »

2500 years of this BS? Time for a change

 

So now we come to the writings on the god we’ve come to call God, and his supposed activities, nature and purpose.

I’m no biblical scholar, and this is a daunting prospect, but here are some questions I need to ask myself. When? What language? Who? How many authors? Is ‘the Torah’ the same as ‘the Pentateuch’? Don’t look for too many answers here.

The first five books of the Bible, and presumably all of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, was written in Biblical Hebrew, and this is important to always keep in mind for English readers, who so often fail to realise they’re reading translations of translations. The first traces of Biblical texts discovered, the Ketef Hinnom scrolls, date back about 2600 years. They are fragments from Numbers, the fourth book. Of course we may never know if these are the oldest texts, but it’s unlikely they’ll find anything too much older. They date, therefore, from a little before the Babylonian exile, written up in various books (Jeremiah, 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Daniel). According to Wikipedia and its sources:

The final redaction of the Pentateuch took place in the Persian period following the exile, and the Priestly source, one of its main sources, is primarily a product of the post-exilic period when the former Kingdom of Judah had become the Persian province of Yehud.

There were multiple authors, it seems. Famously, there were two origin stories, written presumably by separate persons. They’re designated as Gen 1 and Gen 2, and they each use a different name for the creator. The first, starting at Genesis 1:1, uses the Hebrew word Elohim, whereas the second, starting at Genesis 2:4, uses a tetragrammaton, YHWH, for Yahweh. Stylistically, they’re also very different. The first is fairly tightly organised and brief. Importantly from my perspective, the god, though male, is described as creating ‘man’ in its two forms, male and female, together. Here’s the the King James English version:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepers upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them (Genesis 1:26-27).

The second story begins immediately after the first story ends, and it is more detailed and lyrical, describing the garden of Eden, the river out of it, the tree of life, the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and the lands fed by the rivers, divided from the original, flowing from the garden. God spends a lot of time chatting with Adam (the name suddenly pops up), getting him to name all the beasts of the fields and the fowl of the air that he, the god, conjures up. He also tells him that he will create a help-meet for him, but Adam has to remind him of this later. So, the great moment arrives:

And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man (Genesis 2:21-23).

So the male has the naming rights, and the woman provides unspecified help, and they quickly notice that they’re both ‘naked’ – though what might that mean? – but it didn’t apparently bother them – because, it seems, they hadn’t eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (TKGE), a useful tree for any garden. Clearly, none of this makes sense from a modern perspective, but the story goes on, with a talking serpent, who addresses the as-yet unnamed woman, convincing her that she should eat from the TKGE, to become wise. This sounds like good advice, and the woman judges the fruit of the tree to be good, and so she eats, and gets the man to eat, and they’re ashamed, and they hide from the god, who, being omniscient, eventually finds them. He asks why they’re hiding and Adam explains that they’re naked – sophisticated language already! – to which the god asks the very interesting question, Who told you you were naked? There’s no answer, and the god assumes that they’ve eaten from the TKGE. But he doesn’t appear to be sure, he has to ask them. So Adam blames the woman, who blames the serpent, though of course there’s no explanation as to why ignorance is bliss and devouring knowledge is bad.

Most important for my purposes here is the god’s treatment of the woman:

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee (Genesis 3:16)

So that sets the pattern of male-female inequality in Judaism. Pretty flimsy, needless to say.

Now to turn to the warrior god, who is also a jealous god (which is certainly not the same thing). The god of the Israelites, essentially YHWH, is deliberately mysterious, and amorphous. He must not be represented (this is called aniconism, against icons), to make a graven image is toto forbidden. The religious historian Christophe Lemardelé, in an essay of great complexity, finds that the tension between a jealous god, who seems in some kind of marital relation with his people, and a warrior-god seeking to save his people and fight for them, as in the books of Exodus and Judges, can best be resolved by examining the anthropology of the peoples who created this god:

The figure of the patriarch Abraham echoes a pastoral population located in Hebron and therefore leads to suggesting that the patriarchal ideology of Genesis—a book of Judean and rather late origin (Persian period, around the 5th century)—would have its background in the family and kinship structures of these nomadic groups. It seems difficult to us to envisage, without any migration, a late Iron age diffusion, however slow, of the Yahweh’s religion from south to north through these groups. The divine covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not at the origin of God’s privileged relationship with Israel but rather one of its final elaborations.

It seems the god evolved with an increasing patriarchy – the origin stories were by no means the first written, and their misogyny, such as it is, is partial witness to an increasingly endogamous patrilineal society. This god, through the stories of Judges, Deuteronomy and Exodus, becomes more tightly bound to his chosen people, increasingly jealous of other gods, and increasingly demanding and unforgiving. Such is the legacy of the Abrahamic religions, if you want it.

There is of course a great deal more to say and learn, but the WEIRD world continues to move away from these tales and life examples, into hopefully something more bonoboesque, something more in keeping with our actual and potential human nature. The religion that reinforced over a millennium of misogyny is failing, all too slowly, in its Western European heartland, and it would be nice if we could speed that up. We understand our world now well enough to know that keeping women out of positions of power, demeaning them, pretending that they are inferior, or that their roles should be circumscribed, has been disastrous. Nothing short of disastrous. I want to argue for a worldwide release of female power, and a promotion of female dominance. It’s happening slowly, but I’m impatient. I want to present the evidence and I want to continue to see changes bearing fruit. There are parts of the world that are going backwards, certainly – in Afghanistan, in Burma, in China and many other regions. We need to show them by example how good it can be. We need to work to reduce the macho thugocracies (the majority of the world’s nations), and find ourselves in a less brutal, more collaborative, more caring, inclusive and thoughtful world. The rise of female power, I believe, is absolutely central to that transition. Without which not.

References

https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/two-creations-in-genesis

Click to access the-jealousy-of-god.pdf

Written by stewart henderson

May 12, 2022 at 11:50 am

On the origin of the god called God, part one – on the Judean need for a warrior god

leave a comment »

It has long irritated me that people ask the question ‘Do you believe in God?’ or ‘why don’t you believe in God?’, assuming that there’s only one deity, a cultural assumption that reveals a fair degree of ignorance. Obviously there are many gods, or spirits, or powers or forces, because many many cultures have developed over many thousands of years in isolation to each other. 

For example, I’ve been reading Cassandra Pybus’ book Truganini, which relates the horrors suffered by the Aboriginal inhabitants of what was then Van Diemen’s Land in the 1820s and 30s. One particular spirit – Raegewarrah – was considered mostly responsible for the disaster that had befallen them with the advent of Europeans, but there were many other gods and spirits associated with places, activities and so on. Speaking more generally, I recall one spiritually inclined friend saying that these different gods or spirits are all different interpretations of God, or the godhead or some such thing, but it doesn’t take much anthropological research to discover that so many of these creatures have different characters, powers, relationships and fields of agency. There are malevolent and benevolent gods, there are capricious, unpredictable gods, there are regional gods, seasonal gods, gods of love and gods of war, gods of the sea, gods of the forest, squabbling and/or incestuous families of gods, hierarchies of gods, and gods of the other peoples over the mountains or on faraway islands.

It’s stated on some websites that there are between 8000 and 12000 gods on record, but records require writing, and religious beliefs surely predates writing, as for example those of Aboriginal Australians. And we have as little idea of when religious belief in humans began as we do of the beginning of human language. It’s likely though, at least to me, that the origins of human language and religion are connected.

But returning to God, rather than gods, this is a reference to the Judeo-Christian god, as I live in a country colonised by Christians. He (and he’s very male) is also referred to as the Abrahamic god, who unites the three associated religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam in monotheism, or sort of. Christianity differs from the others in that there’s two gods, father and son, who sort of compete with each other for the attention of belevers, being, apparently, quite different characters. 

Anyway, this Judaic god wasn’t, strictly speaking the first monotheistic god, though he was at the foundation of the first successful monotheistic religion that we know of. We can’t of course be certain of how many monotheisms have been tried in history or ‘prehistory’ but we do know of the attempt by the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, some 3,300 years ago – some 750 years before the rabbis of Judah got together to institute their monotheism. Akhenaten tried to compel his subjects to worship the Aten, the Sun God, but only through him, the pharaoh. It was an attempt to impose monotheism in a very hierarchical way, to consolidate the pharoah’s power, and it would’ve entailed the essential abolition of over a hundred other Egyptian gods, so it didn’t survive Akhenaten’s death – in fact, there was a fierce reaction to it afterwards.

Now of course the rabbis of Judah knew nothing about this when they began to develop their monotheism. It’s likely that the Judaic religion existed centuries before it turned monotheistic. It was one of several Canaanite polytheistic religions of the region, and the various Semitic cultures probably shared their different deities, leading to confusion at times about their identities and roles. Much of this will always be speculative as we have few written records from the time, but the name El, from which the Arabic name Allah derives, comes up in slightly different forms in Ugaritic, in Aramaic and in so-called proto-Semitic languages to describe a god who may are may not be the same god in each case. Sometimes El seems to represent a special or supreme god among gods. Other times it seems like a prefix to some particular god, such as El-Hadad. So basically, the name El, and its derivatives, comes up in so many language-forms and in so many contexts that it’s virtually impossible to characterise the god in any coherent way. If you don’t believe me, look up the comprehensive Wikipedia entry on this god, or this descriptor. 

So during the Bronze Age (about 5300 to 3200 years ago) the land of Canaan, of which Judah was a a small part, was occupied or influenced by the Egyptians, the Hittites, the Hurrian Mitanni and the Assyrians, among others. So there were all sorts of cultural and religious influences and pressures that I’m not scholared enough to sort out, but the gods that most stuck with or appealed to the Israelite tribes of Judah and surrounding regions were Yahweh, a warrior-god, the aforementioned El, the mother goddess Asherah, and Baal, who by the time of Iron Age 1 (3200-3000 years ago) had come to replace El in parts of Canaan as the master god. Baal was particularly a fertility god, associated especially with rainfall, which was crucial to the region. The scholarly term is monolatristic worship – with many gods, but one god being more prevalent or important. 

However, over time, and probably due to the regular incursions into and occupation of Israelite regions by other cultures, Yahweh became the more favoured god, a being to rouse the embattled Israelites against their various oppressors. The most serious oppression came from the Babylonians during Iron Age II (about 2600 to 2550 years ago) when the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II besieged Jerusalem and deported the most prominent Judeans, taking them captive to Babylon. Jerusalem, the city, was apparently destroyed, though much of the rest of Judah remained untouched. It was likely this trauma (much relieved a few decades later by the defeat of the Babylonians by Cyrus II of Persia, and the return from exile) that turned the Judean people inwards, and caused them to see Yahweh, their warrior-god, as their sole god, under whom they needed to unite as his chosen people. 

Which brings me to the complex writings of the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. I feel daunted at the thought, so I’ll focus mostly on Genesis, the origin. I have very little interest in the endless abstrusities of Judaism or any other religion, but the tight hold that ‘the one true God’ still has on millions of people has fascinated and disturbed me for decades, especially considering what we’ve come to know about our universe in the past few centuries. It seems knowledge percolates slowly, even when confined to the so-called ‘WEIRD’ world. 

I don’t believe that science and religion are in any way compatible – they offer completely different programs, if you will, for understanding the world and our place in it. The science program is endless, or opened-ended, if you will – with new facts or findings leading to new questions, which, when answered lead to further questions with no end in sight, whereas the religious program (and I’m specifically focussing on Abrahamic religions) has an end, in God, He who cannot be questioned. The old Stephen Jay Gould attempt to evoke NOMA (non-overlapping majesteria), the idea that science and religion can live happily together, (about which I’ve written here), always struck me as frankly ridiculous. 

Of course I understand that religion comes wrapped in culture, which comes wrapped in religion, and all this forms a great part of the identity of many people, and I have no wish to belittle or take from people their culture. It’s a vexed issue, and I don’t have all the answers. I do think there are heavy cultures, which can be damaging, and I notice this damage especially when it comes to gender. Bonobos again. And since the god called God is so very very masculine, I cannot help but feel great discomfort about the Abrahamic religions. 

So my next post will look at the Hebrew Origin myth and the nature of the god as shaped by the writers of the earliest texts.

References

https://www.newscientist.com/letter/mg19125641-200-how-many-gods-are-there/

Truganini: journey through the apocalypse, by Cassandra Pybus, 2020

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_(deity)

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

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

Stephen Jay Gould, NOMA and a couple of popes

 

Written by stewart henderson

April 29, 2022 at 1:29 pm

some more on hydrogen and fuel cells

leave a comment »

an electrolyser facility somewhere in the world, methinks

Canto: Our recent post on democracy and public broadcasting has made me turn to PBS, in order to be more democratic, and I watched a piece from their News Hour on clean hydrogen. Being always in need of scientific education, I’ve made this yet another starting point for my understanding of how hydrogen works as an energy source, what fuel cells are, and perhaps also about why so many people are so skeptical about its viability. 

Jacinta: Fuel cells are the essential components of hydrogen vehicles, just as batteries are for electric vehicles, and infernal combustion engines are for the evil vehicles clogging the roads of today, right?

Canto: Yes, and Jack Brouwer, of the National Fuel Cell Research Centre in California, claims that fuel cells can be designed to be just as fast as battery engine. Now according to the brief, illustrated explanation, diatomic hydrogen molecules enter the fuel cell (hydrogen occurs naturally in diatomic form, as does oxygen). As Miles O’Brien, the reporter, puts it: ‘A fuel cell generates electricity by relying on the natural attraction between hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Inside the cell, a membrane allows positive hydrogen particles [basically protons] to pass through to oxygen supplied from ambient air. The negative particles [electrons] are split off and sent on a detour, creating a flow of electrons – electricity to power the motor. After their work is done, all those particles reunite to make water, which is the only tailpipe emission on these vehicles.’  

Jacinta: He tells us that the oxygen is supplied by ambient air, but where does the hydrogen come from? No free hydrogen. That’s presumably where electrolysis comes in. Also, membranes allows protons to pass but not electrons? Shouldn’t that be the other way round? Electrons are much tinier than protons.  

Canto: Very smart. Maybe we’ll get to that. Brouwer talks of the benefits of fuel cells, saying ‘you can go farther’, whatever that means. Presumably, going farther with less fuel, or rather, you can have a lot of fuel on board, because hydrogen’s the lightest element in the universe. Clearly, it’s not so simple. O’Brien then takes us on a brief history of hydrogen fuel, starting with the conception back in 1839, and real-world application in the sixties for the Apollo missions. The Bush administration pledged a billion dollars for the development of hydrogen fuel cell cars in the 2000s, but – here’s the problem – they were producing hydrogen from methane, that infamous greenhouse gas. Ultimately the cars would be emission free and great for our cities and their currently dirty air, but the hydrogen production would be a problem unless they could find new clean methods. And that’s of course where electrolysis comes in – powered by green electricity. 

Jacinta: The splitting of water molecules, a process I still haven’t quite got my head around…. 

Canto: Well the PBS segment next focuses on the sectors in which, according to Brouwer, hydrogen fuel will make a difference, namely air transport and shipping. Rail and heavy vehicle transport too – where the lightness of hydrogen will make it the go-to fuel. It’s energy-dense but it must be compressed or liquefied for distribution. This makes the distribution element a lot more expensive than it is for petrol. So naturally Brouwer and others are looking at economies of scale – infrastructure. The more of these compressors you have, the more places you have them in, the cheaper it will all be, presumably. 

Jacinta: Right, as presumably happened with wind turbines and solar panels, and the more people working on them, the more people coming up with improvements… But how do they liquefy hydrogen?

Canto: Hmmm, time for some further research. You have to cool it to horribly low temps (lower than −253°C), and it’s horribly expensive. There was a bipartisan infrastructure bill passed recently which will fund the building of hydrogen distribution hubs around the USA through their Department of Energy. That’s where the action will be. The plan, according to mechanical engineer Keith Wipke of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is to do in ten years what it took solar and wind 3 or 4 decades to achieve. That is, to bring hydrogen production costs right down. He’s talking $1 per kilogram. 

Jacinta: Okay, remember that in 2032. 

Canto: Yeah, I won’t. They’re talking about improving every aspect of the process of course, including electrolysers, a big focus, as we’ve already reported. They’re connecting these electrolysers with renewable energy from wind and solar, and, in the bonobo-science world of caring and sharing, any new breakthroughs will quickly become globalised. 

Jacinta: Yeah, and Mr Pudding will win the Nobel Peace Prize…

References

Could hydrogen be the clean fuel of the future? (PBS News Hour video)

green hydrogen? it has its place, apparently

Written by stewart henderson

April 25, 2022 at 5:37 pm

US democracy: another problem

leave a comment »

Please Be Sensible, and fund public broadcasting properly

Jacinta: So we’ve long been wondering why things are so bad in the USA, why so many people believe such rubbish, and even act on it, to the detriment, it seems, of their democratic system. We’ve talked about their jingoism and their religiosity, but there’s so much more to it. For example, there’s a movement of the religious Right, the supposedly Christian Right, which seems to have nothing whatever to do with the supposed teachings of Jesus…

Canto: Or his example, since he clearly wasn’t much of a family man. Actually much of Jesus’s behaviour and speakings were contradictory, certainly nothing you could build a coherent moral framework from.

Jacinta: Yes the Christian Right is all about ‘old-fashioned family values’, men who are men, women who know their place, the corruption that is homosexuality, feminism and the pro-abortion crowd. And this stuff is prevalent in Australia too, but with nowhere near the force and noise. And the same goes for the conspiracy theories, the misinformation, the libertarian, anti-government breast-beating and so forth. In the USA it has threatened, very seriously, to bring down their democracy, which is clearly still under serious threat. But something I heard today on the SGU podcast (The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe episode 875) has helped me understand why so many United Staters are so loopy. Their public media outlets – as opposed to private media – have nothing like the presence that Australia’s ABC and Britain’s BBC have. Kara Santamaria, the SGU’s resident (but not token) female, presented research on this. Government-funded media (not of the Putinland or CCP kind of course) can be seen as ‘funding democracy’. The research comes from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, presented in a paper called ‘Funding Democracy: Public Media and Democratic Health in 33 Countries’. It’s behind a paywall, but the link is below, for anyone who ever reads this, haha. I’m basing my comments on an article about the research, published on the Annenberg website – and on Santamaria’s commentary.

Canto: My turn. From the abstract of the research article we get this conclusion:

Correlations and cluster analyses show that high levels of secure funding for public media systems and strong structural protections for the political and economic independence of those systems are consistently and positively correlated with healthy democracies.

The point being that the USA’s public media, such as PBS and NPR, is funded to the tune of about $1.40 per person per annum, whereas Britain, Western Europe and Australia spend orders of magnitude more. Less than half a per cent of the USA’s GDP goes to Public Media. The Australian government spends about $1.5 billion annually on its public broadcasting, compared to less than $0.5 billion by the USA, with a population about 14 times that of Australia!  These are quite mind-blowing figures. The funding in the USA has been decreasing over a long period, and this has correlated with the country being downgraded on The Economist’s ‘Democracy Index’ from ‘full democracy’ to ‘flawed democracy’. Now obviously the lack of a well-funded public media isn’t the only reason for the USA’s fall from grace – the January 6 insurrection and the growing insanity of the GOP are also factors – but it’s quite possible that the growing influence of unregulated social media, uncounteracted by reliable organisations such as Britain’s BBC, Germany’s Deutsche Welle and the ABC in Australia, is a major factor.
Jacinta: Print journalism, as we well know, is have trouble surviving, causing ‘news deserts’ throughout regional USA, not to mention Australia. And news monopolies are also a problem. I recently perused Adelaide’s ‘Advertiser’ for the first time in a v long time. It’s owned by Rupert Murdoch and is the city’s only newspaper. It was all right-wing stuff, criticising Labor throughout and not even mentioning the struggling Conservative government. It should be obvious that when the media is almost entirely privatised it will be owned by those who favour the status quo, as this is what has made them wealthy enough to buy into the media in the first place.
Canto: There’s no independent oversight with privately owned media – I think of comparing this to private prisons, and the destruction they’re causing. Publicly-owned media doesn’t encourage extremist views – the public outcry would be immediate, and understandable. It also covers a greater diversity of issues, and tends to be more educational. Think of ABC’s Landline, and even Gardening Australia. The public broadcaster here is essential viewing and listening for regional Australia, and is greatly appreciated. The private media tries to provide the public what they think the public wants, public media tends to focus on public need. It appeals to our better angels, while commercial media often appeals to our worst instincts.
Jacinta: More statistics, backing up your previous stuff:
In terms of its public media funding, [the USA] is almost literally off the chart for how little it allocates towards its public media compared to other democracies around the planet. It comes out to .002 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). At $465 million dollars, 2020 federal funding of U.S. public media amounted to just $1.40 per capita. Meanwhile, countries such as the UK, Norway, and Sweden spend close to $100 or more per capita toward their public media.
Which is interesting considering the conservative attacks on our ABC. They so often seem to think it’s a tool of the left – that’s what I get from occasionally accessing twitter. I think it’s because it covers politics a lot, whereas the commercial networks are light on about politics, assuming an indifference from their audience, which becomes a self-fulfilling thing. Certainly the private media have no interest whatever in educational stuff such as Catalyst or children’s educational programming.
Canto: It’s not surprising that the findings from this research back the view that well-funded and regulated public media supports the development of ‘well-informed political cultures, high levels of support for democratic processes, and increased levels of civic engagement’. The counter-argument is always something about ‘state capture’ along the lines of the CCP and Putinland, but recent events have surely revealed the yawning gap between these state thugocracies and the WEIRD world.
Jacinta: But the worry is that some media moguls have as much money and power as many states. I’ll leave the last, lengthy comment to Victor Pickard speaking to the journalist Alina Ladyzhensky, on his public media research re the USA:
Since the market is no longer supporting the level of news media — especially local journalism — that democracy requires, there is arguably now an even stronger case to make that public media needs to step into the vacuum to address the widening news gaps as the commercial newspaper industry continues to wither away. News deserts are expanding across the country and around the world. This should be public media’s moment – an opportunity to revisit its core purpose and assess how it should operate within a democratic society and within an increasingly digital media system. Ideally, we would both restructure and democratize our public media system as we expand this critical infrastructure.
The USA need to turn a corner on this. But will it? It seems highly unlikely at the moment. The slow-motion train crash of US democracy grinds on…

References

https://www.theskepticsguide.org/podcasts

https://www.asc.upenn.edu/news-events/news/public-media-can-improve-our-flawed-democracy

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/19401612211060255

https://www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2021/?utm_source=economist-daily-chart&utm_medium=anchor&utm_campaign=democracy-index-2020&utm_content=anchor-1

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

 

Written by stewart henderson

April 22, 2022 at 4:27 pm

the leader of the free world?: three things

leave a comment »

Canto: So now we’re going to have a go at US jingoism, which is the same as jingoism elsewhere, only more so.

Jacinta: Yes, when nationalism gets in the way of simple humanism, or what might be better termed as ‘humaneness’, or any term that can be defined as opposition to needless suffering, human or otherwise, then it’s a problem.

Canto: And nations, it seems to me, are a much more recent phenomenon, by and large, than cultures. So when national governments suppress particular cultures within their boundaries, as the Chinese thugocracy is doing today, in the name of some unifying national principle, it’s a problem.

Jacinta: And let’s be fair, Australia has done this in the past, as has the US – both nations in respect of their indigenous populations – and it has been a common feature of many nations as they seek to forge this ‘national identity’ dream.

Canto: But also to be fair, some nations are learning lessons from their history, and embracing a more multicultural national identity. But to return to the US, and the term US exceptionalism’, we’ve already agreed that, from an outsider’s perspective, the US appears to be exceptional in only two things, when compared to other WEIRD countries – its jingoism and its religiosity.

Jacinta: It’s kind of religiously jingoistic. As well as just plain religious, compared to Australia, Western Europe etc. Religious, or worshipful, about its political system, its Presidents (remembered by number!), and its clearly outdated and overly vague Constitution.

Canto: Indeed. But, having paid rather too much attention to US politics since the advent of Trump – because we could barely believe that any WEIRD nation could elect such a Chump, or permit to stand for the office of ‘President of the Leader of the Free World, or ‘President of the World’s Greatest Democracy’, a person whom no rational interview committee would hire to run a public toilet, an incompetent buffoon, in fact -having been seduced to watching this slow-motion train wreck, I’ve often heard these terms – ‘the Leader of the Free World’ and ‘the World’s Greatest Democracy’ – spoken by pundits of the Left and the Right, by politicians as well as journalists, generally in an offhand ‘speaks for itself’ sort of way that suggests to me that they might’ve learned this mantra in kindergarten. So I want to say three things about this, and I’m going to focus specifically on the ‘Leader of the Free World’ claim.

First Thing. The free world – a relative term, of course – doesn’t require a leader. Essentially, that’s what makes it free. It certainly doesn’t need to be led like a flock of sheep by a self-appointed shepherd.

Second Thing. There seems to be an assumption that the USA, which has the largest population of all the ‘free world’ or WEIRD countries (India, a nominally democratic nation, doesn’t quite tick all the boxes for WEIRDness), and the largest economy and military capacity, should automatically be named WEIRD leader. But that’s like assuming that the biggest and strongest kid in the class should be named ‘class leader’. After all, the biggest and strongest kid might be a blithering idiot. In fact, under Trump’s leadership, the USA did become something of a blithering idiot, and was so regarded by much of the WEIRD world. And it could become so again. If, for some specific purpose, the WEIRD world requires a leader, then it should choose a leader fit for that purpose. But I would argue that, most of the time, a leader is not required. What is most required is collaboration and mutual support. The free world shouldn’t be seen as hierarchical.

Third thing. When we talk about the free world, obviously the key word is ‘free’. Yet there is a problem within the USA vis-a-vis freedom, because the imprisonment rate there is higher than that of any other WEIRD country, by a long way (and meanwhile, high-level criminals can be elected to the nation’s top leadership positions). This third thing is worth looking at more closely. The World Population Review website has figures on incarceration rates by country, and it does provide sources, but let’s face it everybody knows that the USA’s incarceration rate is way off the scale – the greatest proportion of imprisoned citizens on Earth. And considering that second, third and fourth places are filled by Rwanda, Turkmenistan and El Salvador, nations not noted, historically, for their political freedoms, this screams at anyone that something is seriously wrong with this ‘bastion of freedom’.

Jacinta: Mind you, I wouldn’t trust any statistics coming out of China or Putinland…

Canto: So why such a high rate of the unfree in the land of the free? The World Population Review website provides the figures in numbers per 100,000 of the population. The USA’s number is 629, which has actually fallen in the last few years (it was 716 in 2013), but it’s still easily the highest in the world. Okay, as far as we know. Australia’s number is 167, which is bad enough. Western European countries seem to be doing something right – they’re obviously not riddled by crime, or they don’t see imprisoning people as the solution. Here’s some numbers. France 119, Portugal 113, Spain 113, Belgium 93, Austria 91, Italy 91, Switzerland 73, Sweden 73, Denmark 72, Germany 70, Netherlands 60, Norway 56 and Finland 50. And in Japan, that admittedly odd country, the number is 37. So why is the US number so horrifically high, and why isn’t the WEIRD world investigating the USA for crimes against its own humanity? Well, it may be that the USA is like the proverbial frog in the slowly warming pot – it seems oblivious to its self-made mess. But there are some clear-cut reasons. For a start, to call US prisons correctional institutions, as they do, is an obscene joke. The privatisation of the prison system has only increased the problem of dehumanisation and recidivism – the USA’s recidivism rate is one of the world’s highest. A tendency towards longer sentences – for whatever reason – has exacerbated the problem, and the USA’s fantastical ‘war against drugs’ has meant high rates of imprisonment for victimless crimes.

In short, no country that treats such a vast proportion of its own citizens, many of them struggling to survive in situations of severe disadvantage – in this way should be allowed to get away with claiming to be a bastion of freedom.

Jacinta: Yes, but you can’t get away from it, history tells us that might is right, and if you don’t get it, you’ll get stomped on. Peter the Great told me that.

Canto: Okay… so this was all a waste of time then.

Written by stewart henderson

April 19, 2022 at 6:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

green hydrogen? it has its place, apparently

with one comment

easy-peasy? don’t be guiled

Canto: So now that Labor has won government in South Australia it’ll be implementing its hydrogen plan pronto, I presume. But so many people seem iffy about hydrogen, I thought we might do another shallow dive on the topic.

Jacinta: Yes, we jointly wrote a piece last June on SA’s hydrogen plan (linked below), and a brief interview today with Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest caught my attention – time to revisit and further our education on the subject.

Canto: Yes, a recent ABC article described Forrest’s ‘green hydrogen hub’ in Gladstone in central Queensland. He’s building the world’s largest electrolyser facility there. We’re talking gigawatts rather than megawatts. He expects – by which he means hopes – that the facility will have the capacity to produce 2 gigawatts (that’s 2000 megawatts) of electrolysers per annum, just for starters.

Jacinta: I’m not sure whether to trust Forrest’s hype, but I like his enthusiasm. He reckons he already has buyers for his electrolysers and that ‘the order list is growing rapidly’

Canto: Interesting – Forrest says that the lack of electrolysers has been a problem for a while, and apparently Australian researchers at the University of Wollongong, associated with a company called Hysata, have achieved a ‘giant leap for the electrolysis industry’, with its ‘capillary-fed electrolysis cells’, which have attained 95% efficiency, up from the previous 75%. This was published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications, so it’s not just hot air.

Jacinta: Apparently electrolysers have been around for quite some time, with very few improvements, so this seems important. The researchers describe their approach thus:

The central challenge was to reduce the electrical resistance within the electrolysis cell. Much like a smart phone battery warming as it charges, resistance wasted energy in a regular cell as well as often requiring additional energy for cooling.

“What we did differently was just to start completely over and to think about it from a very high level,” Swiegers said. “Everyone else was looking at improving materials or an existing design.”

Canto: Reducing electrical resistance – that’s always the key to cheaper and more effective electricity, it seems to me. That was at the heart of the AC versus DC battle, and it’s what has made LED lighting such a vital development.

Jacinta: I still don’t understand LED lighting. Photons instead of electrons, yet still connected to an electric circuit driven by electrons in wires…

Canto: Anyway, returning to hydrogen, there’s a presumably new organisation called the Australian Hydrogen Council, whose website has a frequently asked questions section. The key thing about green hydrogen, or otherwise, is where the electricity comes from to produce electrolysis. To be green, obviously, it needs to be from solar or wind, or hydro. The FAQ section also mentions that the electricity can come from carbon capture and storage, resulting in ‘low to zero carbon emissions’.

Jacinta: Hmmm. We’ll have to do a shallow dive on carbon capture and storage soon. I know that ‘greenies’ are generally highly skeptical, but sometimes I feel a bit skeptical of greenies. Am I allowed to say that?

Canto: A generalised skepticism means looking critically at any scientific claims. But I’ve been thinking about electrolysis, particularly the electrolysis of water, which is key to this clean green hydrogen-producing process, presumably. It’s about ‘lysis’ – splitting, or separating – by means of an electrical current. But to paraphrase Woody Allen, ‘I’m two with science’. Or to put it another way, science is to me like a lover I’m passionate about but can never fully, or even partially, understand…

Jacinta: Well I’ve watched a wee citizen science video about doing electrolysis of water at home. You need, according to these guys, distilled  water, nice and pure, and ‘kosher’, non-iodised salt. Mix it together in a heat-resistant beaker, about nine parts water to one part salt, until the salt dissolves, and insert a couple of spoons attached to a nine volt battery into the mix. The salt increases the conductivity of the solution, as pure water isn’t conductive, much. You’ll need an acid, such as vinegar, to neutralise the alkaline solution that results from the experiment. That alkaline solution is essentially sodium hydroxide, NaOH, aka caustic soda or lye, which can cause burns, so home experimenters need to protect themselves accordingly. Then you insert the spoons, each connected to one of the two terminals of the battery, into the beaker. Bubbles of hydrogen and chlorine gas will form, as long as the two spoons are kept separate. Note that inhaling chlorine gas is a v bad idea, so, again, protection. And best to do the experiment outside. So what is happening here? Salt is an electrolyte, an ionically-bonded compound. The ions are what facilitates the transfer of electrical energy. So what we have in the solution are molecules of H, O, Na and Cl, the molecular bonds having been broken by the electrical current. In this home experiment, the hydrogen and chlorine gases escape into the air, but of course the hydrogen will be captured for energy use in the system being developed by Forrest and others.

Canto: Yes the salt water is used as an electrolyte, but different electrolysers will use different electrolytes. The US website energy.gov describes three types of electrolysers being used or considered at the commercial level – polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM), alkaline, and solid oxide. The problems with all these types is cost-effectiveness. For example the solid oxide membranes in that type of electrolyser need to operate at very high temperatures – between 700 and 800°C – to function effectively, though promising work is being done to lower the temperature. From what I can gather, the PEM electrolysers are showing the most promise. This uses a solid plastic electrolyte, and for what it’s worth I’ll quote something about how it works:

  • Water reacts at the anode to form oxygen and positively charged hydrogen ions (protons).
  • The electrons flow through an external circuit and the hydrogen ions selectively move across the PEM to the cathode.
  • At the cathode, hydrogen ions combine with electrons from the external circuit to form hydrogen gas.
  • Anode Reaction: 2H2O → O2 + 4H+ + 4e Cathode Reaction: 4H+ + 4e → 2H2

Jacinta: As you’ve said, the cost of electrolysers is a major barrier, and I’ve been unable to find out the type of electrolysers Forrest’s company (Green Energy Manufacturing) is going with. I did find out that Twiggy likes to be called Dr Forrest now, having completed a doctorate in Marine science recently. Also, there’s quite a lot of skepticism about his green hydrogen project.

Canto: Yeah, like there was with SA’s big battery… Stop Press –

The electrolysers produced at the GEM facility will partner FFI’s advanced manufacturing capabilities with cutting-edge Polymer Electrolysis Membrane (PEM) technology developed by NASDAQ-listed company Plug Power to deliver a high-purity, efficient and reliable end product.

That’s advertising blurb from the Queensland government, so we’ll have to wait and see. But getting back to the skepticism about hydrogen as an energy source – what gives? Well, according to Rosie Barnes, Australia’s engineering Wonderwoman, the process of creating hydrogen by electrolysis and then burnng it in a full cell is very energy-inefficient compared to direct or battery electrical energy. That’s three compared to one wind turbine, for example. Also hydrogen takes up a lot of space – remember those massive zeppelins?

Jacinta: Not personally.

Canto: Well, another problem with hydrogen is its flammability. The Hindenburg wasn’t the only hydrogen airship that went up in flames. They can replace hydrogen with helium apparently, but that presents another set of problems. In any case, it looks like hydrogen isn’t going to be the silver bullet for green energy, but it will surely be a part of the energy mix, and with technologies for storage and transport being developed and improved all the time, it’ll be interesting to see how and where green hydrogen finds its place.

Jacinta: Yes I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on the projects happening here in Australia, and how the likely change of government at the federal level makes a difference. My feeling is that they’re keeping mum about their energy plans until after the election, but maybe I’m being overly optimistic.

 

References

a hydrogen energy industry in South Australia?

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-02-28/andrew-forrest-begins-work-on-green-hydrogen-hub-in-gladstone/100865988

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-022-28953-x

The Sci Guys: Science at home – electrolysis of water (video)

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

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2589299119300035

https://www.statedevelopment.qld.gov.au/news/people-projects-places/breaking-ground-how-aldoga-is-leading-queenslands-renewable-energy-charge

https://skepticalscience.com/hydrogen-fuel.html

Hydrogen and Helium in Rigid Airship Operations

 

Written by stewart henderson

April 18, 2022 at 5:57 pm