an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

how to define a planet: the problematic case of Pluto

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Pluto, with its ‘heart-shaped’ area known as Sputnik Planitia, imaged by New Horizons, July 14 2015

A while back I listened to a podcast from Point of Inquiry, in which two planetary scientists, Alan Stern and David Grinspoon, involved in NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, were separately interviewed, and were inevitably asked about Pluto’s demotion from planet status. Having not followed this issue, I was surprised at the response. So it’s time to take a closer look.

Of course I should be writing ecstatically about the New Horizons mission, not to mention those of Juno, Cassini, Mars’ Curiosity and so forth, and hopefully that will come, but the controversy about Pluto immediately struck me, as I thought, in my naïveté, that its demotion was a consensual thing amongst astronomers, with only the ignoroscenti (my neologism) left to mourn the fact (not that I mourned it particularly – Pluto still existed after all, and it didn’t care a jot what we thought of it).

Pluto, discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, was accepted as the ninth and final planet in our solar system for decades until the nineties, when another Kuiper belt object was discovered (besides Charon, Pluto’s large moon), and the Kuiper belt itself became a thing, in fact a massive thing, far bigger than the ‘familiar’ asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. We now know of more than 1000 kuiper belt objects, with at least 100,000 believed to exist. The Kuiper belt is widely spread out from the orbit of Neptune, and though Pluto is its largest and brightest object, it’s not the most massive. Presumably it’s for this reason that Pluto was demoted – what with the scattered disc and the Oort cloud there seemed to suddenly be a host of objects that could be included as planets, so it was thought better to exclude Pluto, or to demote it to dwarf planet status, presumably along with other assorted Kuiper belt objects (KBOs), rocks and iceballs that were worthy of the designation. That seemed okay to my thoughtless mind, but here’s what Alan Stern had to say on the subject:

Well, you know, we don’t really honour that classification in planetary science, that was really done by a group of different astronomers who don’t know much about planets. Let me give you a technical term, we call it BS. You know what BS stands for don’t you? Bad Science. Now you wouldn’t ask a podiatrist, a foot doctor, to help you if you had a cardiovascular problem with your heart, that’d be the wrong expertise, though they’re both doctors you’d be going for a cardiologist. And if you had a real estate problem you probably wouldn’t go to a divorce attorney, even though they’re both attorneys. In the space field we have many professions, we have engineering professions, we have many different scientific specialties, etc. Astronomers really don’t know much about planets any more than I’m an expert in black holes in faraway galaxies. They had a little meeting in 2006, they were worried that school children would have to memorise the names of too many planets, so they wrote a definition that limited the number of planets to eight. Now, right after that, Ira Flatow called me up on Science Friday and said, would you debate Mike Brown, who was one of the proponents of ‘let’s limit the planets to eight’, and I said, sure, and we got on the phone and it’s Science Friday live, and Mike Brown makes his case and says, ‘look we just can’t have 50 planets, it’s too many to remember.’ Now, I found that anti-scientific, it seems like engineering the definition, versus letting it inform you, but Ira said, Alan what’d you think, ‘can’t have 50 planets’, what d’you say back to MIke? I said, ‘well if you can’t have 50 planets then we’re probably going to have to go back to eight states, I guess’. And he was speechless…

I love that story – though no doubt Mike Brown would’ve told a different one. So let’s turn Stern’s objection into an inquiry. Was it scientifically correct/accurate/fair to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf/minor planet?

Happily I just happened to listen to a podcast of the Skeptics’ Guide a few days later, which has led me to a more detailed piece on Steven Novella’s Neurologica blog on the Pluto controversy. Apparently, in the above-mentioned 2006 meeting they decided that to be classified as a planet, a body in our solar system should meet 3 criteria:

  • it has to orbit the sun
  • it has to be spheroid (i.e. have the mass to be so, due to its gravity),
  • it must have cleared its orbit of other objects.

Now this third criteria immediately seems the dodgiest, as it sounds like it’s designed to eliminate any KBOs. And how do we know an orbit is cleared? After all, one day, a comet or asteroid may strike us, because our orbits have coincided this time around. And why is that third criterion even important?

Novella cites a recent paper by planetary scientist Phillip Metzger who argues that the third criterion is invalid and that nothing about a body’s orbit should be in the definition since orbits can alter due to external influences. Only characteristics intrinsic to the body should be included in the definition. This would essentially leave one criterion standing – that of sphericity. And even then, how sphere-like does a planet have to be? Another ‘problem’ with Metzger’s definition is that it would include moons, such as our own, and many others. Novella has his own classifying suggestion, which sounds promising to me:

We keep criteria “a” and “b” and drop “c”. However, we add that the object must not be in a subservient orbit around a larger object. What does that mean? If two objects, like the Earth and Moon, are in orbit around each other, and the center of gravity (barycenter) lies beneath the surface of one of the bodies, then the smaller object will be said to orbit the larger object, and is a moon. Therefore Europa, which is large enough by itself to be a planet, would instead be considered a moon because it orbits Jupiter.

I need to further explain the term ‘barycentre’, for my own sake. Think of two bodies in gravitational relationship to each other. Inevitably, one of them will be more massive, and will exert a greater gravitational force. An obvious case is the Earth and the Moon. Between the two there is a point, the ‘centre of gravity’, or barycentre,  around which the two bodies revolve, but because the Earth is a lot more massive that the Moon and they’re relatively close to each other, that barycentre is actually close enough to the Earth’s centre to be within the mass of the Earth, with the result that only the moon revolves. The Earth, though, is very much affected by the Moon’s gravitational field, which causes a slight wobble as well as tidal effects on the Earth’s surface. 

Interestingly, Novella’s reclassification would include Charon, Pluto’s ‘moon’, as a planet (as well as Pluto of course) because its size relative to Pluto puts the barycentre at a point between the two bodies, rather than within Pluto. So Pluto-Charon would be reclassified as a binary-planet system. It would also promote Ceres, in the asteroid belt, and Eris and Makemake, two recently discovered Kuiper belt objects, to planetary status. That takes the current eight up to thirteen, with others yet to be discovered. 

It’s unlikely of course that the astronomical overlords who reclassified Pluto would be swayed by any mere outsider’s view, however well-reasoned, but this examination of the issue is a reminder of just how dubious the reasoning of ‘experts’ can be, and how important it is to question that reasoning. Size apparently does matter to these guys, but this new category of ‘dwarf’ or ‘minor’ planet seems inherently unstable, and will probably become even more so as the number of discovered exoplanets increases. Will it be mass or volume that’s the decider, and what will be the mass or volume that decides? And does it really matter? It’s only nomenclature after all. And yet… The difference between an asteroid and a comet is important, is it not? And so is the difference between a planet and an asteroid. And so is the difference between a moon and a planet. And so… is it not? 

Written by stewart henderson

October 14, 2018 at 1:09 pm

What’s up with Trump’s frontal cortex? part 2

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Before going on with my thoughts about little Donnie’s brain, I want to address two pieces of relevant reading I’ve done lately. 

First, the short article by ‘Neuroskeptic’ entitled ‘Don’t blame Trump’s brain‘. Now, as anyone who’s read much of my blog knows, I consider myself a skeptic and a supporter of the skeptical community. However, I don’t entirely agree with Neuroskeptic here. First, describing people’s attempt to work out Trump’s psychology or neurology from his words and actions as ‘Trumphrenology’ is a silly put-down. In fact, all psychiatric conditions are diagnosed on the basis of observed words and acts – duh, what else? Unless there’s a brain injury or genetic abnormality. So the medical terms used to describe Trump and others do have some validity, though I agree that ‘medicalising’ the problem of Trump can be counter-productive, as it is with many ‘conditions’ which have appeared recently to describe the spectra of human behaviour. It’s more important, in my view, to recognise Trump as a career criminal than to put a psycho-neurological label on him. Then again, as someone who doesn’t believe in free will, the brain that makes Trump be Trump is of some interest to me. Second, Neuroskeptic describes the arguments of those who attribute medical conditions to people on the basis of behaviour as ‘circular’. This is false. Behaviour is more than s/he thinks it is. When we try to understand the brain, we look at how it behaves under particular conditions. According to Neuroskeptic ‘it’s rarely useful to try to understand a behaviour in neuroscientific terms’. If that’s true, then the monumental 700-page book Behave, by Robert Sapolsky, one of the world’s leading neurobiologists, was largely a waste of time. Third, Neuroskeptic questions the validity and ethics of Trump ‘diagnosis-at-a-distance’. This is absurd. Over the past two years alone, Americans have been subjected to several thousand tweets, hundreds of televised speeches and comments, and the day-to-day actions of the lad in the White House. Unless they make a real effort to switch off, most Americans can’t help knowing more about Trump than they do about just about anyone in their intimate circle. Where’s the distance?

Second, on The dangerous case of Donald Trump, by 27 people working in the field of mental health. I’ve not read it, but I’ve read the ‘summary’, attributed to Bandy X Lee, the contributing editor of the full book, though I prefer to believe that Lee, a respected Yale professor of psychology, had no hand in writing this summary, which is, syntactically speaking, the worst piece of published writing I’ve ever read in my life (I say this as a language teacher). I prefer to believe it was written by an intellectually disabled computer. I’m sure the full book is far far better, but still I’m amused by the variety of conditions Trump may be suffering from – ADHD, malignant narcissism, borderline personality disorder, psychopathology, sociopathology, delusional disorder, generalised anxiety disorder etc (OK that last one is what most reasoning Americans are supposedly suffering from because of Trump). All of this is a bit of a turn-off, so I won’t be reading the book. I tend to agree with what Neuroskeptic seems to be inferring – that we don’t need a psychiatric diagnosis as an excuse to get rid of Trump – his obviously asinine remarks, his insouciant cruelty and his general incompetence are in full view. His criminality should have seen him in jail long ago, for a long time. Further, the idea that a diagnosis of mental instability could lead to invoking the 25th amendment is absurd on its face. Anyone who’s read the 25th amendment should see that. I don’t see any evidence that Trump’s condition is deteriorating – he’s been consistently deceitful and profoundly incurious throughout his life. That means he was elected as a fuckwitted dickhead. Don’t blame Trump, blame those who elected him. And blame the lack of checks and balances that should make it impossible for just anyone to become President. Democracy does have its flaws after all.

So what are the patterns of behaviour that might lead to a diagnosis, which then might be confirmed neurologically – if, for example we were to apply a tranquillising dart to this bull-in-a-china-shop’s voluminous rump, then tie him up and probe his frontal and pre-frontal regions and their connections, in response to questioning and other fun stimuli (I’d love to be in charge of that operation)?

I’ll first list some notable Trump behaviours and traits, recognised by the cognoscenti, without suggesting anything about their relation to frontal cortex disfunction.

  • A tendency, or need, to take credit for everything positive that happens within his particular environment, and a concomitant tendency, or need, to blame anyone else for everything negative occurring in that environment
  • a winner/loser mentality, in which losers are often members of ‘losing’ cultures, sub-groups or entities (blacks, latinos, women, the failing NYT) and winners are judged in terms of pure power and wealth (Putin, Kim, Manafort, Fred Trump)
  • lack of focus in speeches and an inability to listen; generally a very limited attention span 
  • frequently cited temper tantrums
  • lack of empathy and consideration for others, to quite an extreme degree, close to solipsism
  • emphasis on compliance and deference from others, inability to deal with criticism
  • extreme lack of curiosity
  • lack of interest in or understanding of ethics
  • lack of interest in or understanding of concepts of truth/falsehood 
  • extreme need to be the centre of attention

I think that’s a good start. As to how these traits map on to psychopathological states and then onto cortical development, I won’t be so psychopathological as to provide clear answers. Most people I’ve spoken to suggest malignant narcissism as a pretty good fit for his behaviour – perhaps due to its all-encompassing vagueness? Wikipedia describes it as ‘a hypothetical, experimental diagnostic category’, which doesn’t sound promising, and it isn’t recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), though narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is. I suppose that some people want to particularly emphasise Trump’s malignancy, but I think NPD is bad enough. Here’s the Wikipedia description, drawn from the latest DSM and other sources:

a personality disorder with a long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. Those affected often spend a lot of time thinking about achieving power or success, or on their appearance. They often take advantage of the people around them. The behaviour typically begins by early adulthood, and occurs across a variety of social situations.

Now, I came up with the Trump behavioural traits before I read this description, I swear. I think the fit is pretty exact, but it’s clear that those responsible for diagnosing someone with NPD don’t do so on the basis of brain scans. I’ve explored enough neurology to fairly safely say that NPD, psychopathy and many other psychiatric conditions just can’t, as yet be reliably correlated with neurological connections or lack thereof. Even schizophrenia, one of the more treatable psychotic conditions, is rarely described in terms of brain function, and is diagnosed entirely through behaviour patterns. 

Having said this, all of these conditions are entirely about brain function, and in Trump’s case, brain development since early childhood. We’ll never get to know what precisely is up with Trump’s frontal cortex, partly because we’ll never get that tranquilising dart to penetrate his fat arse and to then practise Nazi-like experimentation… sorry to dwell so lovingly on this. And partly because, in spite of the galloping advances we’re making in neurology, we’re not at the knowledge level, I suspect, of being able to pinpoint connections between the amygdalae, the hypothalamus, the hippocampus and the various regions of the frontal and prefrontal cortex. I plan to do more research and reading on this, and there may be another blog piece in the offing. However, one thing I can say – Trump probably isn’t a psychopath. Psychopaths tend not to have temper tantrums – their emotional responses are minimal, rather than being exacerbated by life’s slings and arrows, and their violence is instrumental rather than impassioned. Their amygdalae – the founts of aggression and anxiety – are correspondingly reduced. Doesn’t sound like Trump.

Again, though reflection on Trump’s curious psyche may be intrinsically interesting, it’s his crimes that should do him in. As I’ve said before, the fact that he’s not currently in custody is a disgrace to the American criminal and legal system. His fixer is facing a jail term, and in pleading guilty to two felony counts of campaign finance violations, has fingered Trump as the Mr Big of that operation. Those authorities who have not arrested him should themselves be facing legal action for such criminal negligence. And of course other crimes will be highlighted by the Mueller team in the near future, though such scams as Trump University should have seen him jailed long ago. Others have suffered lengthy prison terms for less. But that’s the USA, the greatest democracy in the greatest, free-est and fairest nation in the history of the multiverse. Maybe such overweening pride deserves this fall…

Written by stewart henderson

October 12, 2018 at 4:20 pm

more about ozone, and the earth’s greatest extinction event

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the Siberian Traps are layers of flood basalt covering an area of 2 million square kilometres

Ozone, or trioxygen (O3), an unstable molecule which is regularly produced and destroyed by the action of sunlight on O2, is a vital feature in our atmosphere. It protects life on earth from the harmful effects of too much UV radiation, which can contribute to skin cancers in humans, and genetic abnormalities in plant life. In a previous post I wrote about the discovery of the ozone shield, and the hole above Antarctica, which we seem to be reducing – a credit to human global co-operation. In this post I’m going to try and get my head around whether or not ozone depletion played a role in the so-called end-Permian extinction of some 250 mya. 

I first read of this theory in David Beerling’s 2009 book The emerald planet, but recent research appears to have backed up Beerling’s scientific speculations – though speculation is too weak a word. Beerling is a world-renowned geobiologist and expert on historical global climate change. He’s also a historian of science, and in ‘An ancient ozone catastrophe?’, chapter 4 of The emerald planet, he describes the discovery and understanding of ozone through the research of Robert Strutt, Christian Schönbein, Marie Alfred Cornu, Walter Hartley, George Dobson, Sidney Chapman and Paul Crutzen, among others. He goes on to describe the ozone hole discovery in the 70s and 80s, before focusing on research into the possible effects of previous events – the Tunguska asteroid strike of 1908, the Mount Pinatubo eruption of 1991 and others – on atmospheric ozone levels, and then homes in on the greatest extinction event in the history of our planet – the end-Permian mass extinction, ‘the Great Dying’, which wiped out some 95% of all species then existing.

According to Beerling, it was an international team of palaeontologists led by Henk Visscher at the University of Utrecht who first made the claim that stratospheric ozone had substantially reduced in the end-Permian. They hypothesised that, due to the greatest volcanic eruptions in Earth history, which created the Siberian Traps (layers of solidified basalt covering a huge area of northern Russia), huge deposits of coal and salt, the largest on Earth, were disrupted:


The widespread heating of these sediments and the action of hot groundwater dissolving the ancient salts, was a subterranean pressure cooker synthesising a class of halogenated compounds called organohalogens, reactive chemicals that can participate in ozone destruction. And in less than half a million years, this chemical reactor is envisaged to have synthesised and churned out sufficiently large amounts of organohalogens to damage the ozone layer worldwide to create an intense increased flux of UV radiation.

However, Beerling questions this hypothesis and considers that it may have been the eruptions themselves, which lasted 2 million years and occurred at the Permian-Triassic boundary 250-252 mya, rather than their impact on salt deposits, that did the damage. There’s evidence that many of the eruptions originated from as deep as 10 kilometres below the surface, injected explosively enough to reach the stratosphere, and that these plumes contained substantial amounts of chlorine. 

More recent research, published this year, has further substantiated Visscher’s team’s finding regarding genetic mutations in ancient conifers and lycopsids, and their probable connection with UV radiation enabled by ozone destruction. The mutations were global and dated to the same period. Laboratory experiments exposing related modern plants to bursts of UV radiation have produced more or less identical spore mutations.

The exact chain of events linking the eruptions to the ozone destruction have yet to be worked out, and naturally there’s a lot of scientific argy-bargy going on, but the whole story, even considering that it occurred so far in the past is a reminder of the fragility of that part of our planet that most concerns us – the biosphere. The eruptions clearly altered atmospheric chemistry and temperature. Isotopic measurements of oxygen in sea water suggest that equatorial waters reached more than 40°C. As can be imagined, this had killer effects on multiple species. 

So, we’re continuing to gain knowledge on the ozone shield and its importance, and fragility. I don’t know that there are too many ozone hole skeptics around (I don’t want to look too hard), but if we could only get the same kind of apparent near-unanimity with regard to anthropogenic global warming, that would be great progress. 

Written by stewart henderson

October 10, 2018 at 3:15 pm

What’s up with Trump’s frontal cortex? – part 1

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He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity… manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. 

Trump, when asked who he consults with on foreign policy

You might be forgiven for thinking the above description is of the current US President, but in fact it’s a 19th century account of the change wrought upon Phineas Gage after his tragically explosive encounter with a railway tamping rod in 1848. It’s taken from neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave. A more fulsome analysis is provided in Antonio Demasio’s landmark work Descartes’ Error. The 19th century account is provided by Gage’s doctor.

Due to an accident with blasting powder the iron tamping rod blew a large hole through a part of Gage’s brain, exited through the top of his skull and landed some eighty feet away ‘along with much of his left frontal cortex’ (Sapolsky). Amazingly, Gage survived, though with great changes to his behaviour, as described above . Before the accident he had earned a reputation as a highly skilled, disciplined and reliable railway team foreman.

I was quite happy to be reacquainted with Gage’s story this morning, because in a recent conversation I was expounding upon Trump’s pre-adolescent nature, his tantrums, his solipsism, his childish name-calling, his limited language skills, his short attention span, his more or less complete ethical delinquency and so forth, about which my companion readily agreed, but when I suggested that this was all about a profoundly underdeveloped frontal cortex, she demurred, feeling I’d gone a bit too far.

Of course, I’m not a neurologist, but…

Any full description of Trump’s apparently missing or severely reduced frontal cortex needs to be evidence-based, but Trump is as likely to submit to any kind of brain scan or analysis as he is to present his tax returns. So the best we can do is compare his behaviour to those we know to have frontal lobe impairment.

Sapolsky tells us about the importance of the frontal lobe in making the tough decisions, the kinds of decisions that separate us from other primates. These are decisions in which our emotions and drives are activated, as well as higher order thinking involving a full understanding of the impact upon others of our actions.

Interestingly, in the case of Gage, his personality transformation meant that he couldn’t continue in his former occupation, so for a time he suffered the humiliation of being an exhibit in P T Barnum’s American Museum. I find this particularly intriguing because Trump has often been compared to Barnum – a showman, a con-man, a self-promoter and so forth. So in some ways – for example in Trump’s rallies, which he clearly loves to engage in – Trump has a dual role, as exhibitor and exhibit.

More importantly though, and this story is I think far more important than his injury and humiliation, Gage recovered almost completely over time – a testament to the brain plasticity which has recently been highlighted. On reflection, this shouldn’t be so surprising. Gage had been a person of rectitude and responsibility for decades before the disaster, and the neuronal pathways that his habitual behaviour had laid down, perhaps since early childhood, had only to be recovered through memory. It’s astonishing how this can happen even with subjects with less brain matter than ‘normal’ humans. Different parts of the brain can apparently be harnessed to rebuild the old networks.

The case of Trump, though, is different, as these higher order networks may never have been laid down. This isn’t to say there isn’t something there – it’s not as if there’s just a great hole where his frontal cortex should be. It’s more that his responses would map onto the responses of someone – a teenager or pre-teenager – who reliably behaves in a certain way because of the lack of full development of the frontal cortex, which we know isn’t fully developed in normal adults until their mid-twenties. And when we talk of the frontal cortex, we’re of course talking of something immensely complex with many interacting parts, which respond with great variability to different stimuli among different people.

But before delving into the neurological issues, a few points about the recent New York Times revelations regarding Fred Trump’s businesses, his treatment of young Donald and vice versa. The Hall & Oates refrain keeps playing in my head as I write, and as I read the Times article. What it suggests is a gilded, cosseted life – a millionaire, by current financial standards, at age eight. It seems that right until the end, Fred Trump covered up for his son’s business incompetence by bailing him out time and time again. This adds to a coherent narrative of a spoilt little brat who was rarely ever put in a position where he could learn from his mistakes, or think through complex solutions to complex problems. Trump senior clearly over-indulged his chosen heir-apparent with the near-inevitable result that the spoilt brat heartlessly exploited him in his final years. Fred Trump was a business-obsessed workaholic who lived frugally in a modest home and funnelled masses of money to his children, especially Donald, who basically hoodwinked the old man into thinking he was a chip off the old block. In the usual sibling battle for the parents’ affection and regard, Donald, the second son, saw that his older bother, Fred junior, was exasperating his dad due to his easy-going, unambitious nature (he later became an alcoholic, and died at 42), so Donald presented himself as the opposite – a ruthless, abstemious, hard-driving deal-maker. It worked, and Donald became his pretend right-hand man: his manager, his banker, his advisor, etc. In fact Donald was none of these things – underlings did all the work. Donald was able to talk the talk, but he couldn’t walk the walk – he had none of his father’s business acumen, as the Times article amply proves. In the late eighties, with the stock market crashing and the economy in free-fall, Trump made stupid decision after stupid decision, but his ever-reliable and always-praising dad kept him afloat. He also bequeathed to his son a strong belief in dodging taxes, crushing opposition and exaggerating his assets. The father even encouraged the son’s story that he was a ‘self-made billionaire’, and it’s not surprising that the over-indulged Donald and his siblings eventually took advantage of their ailing father – enriching themselves at his expense through a variety of business dodges described in the Times article. By the time of his death, Fred Trump had been stripped of almost all of his assets, a large swathe of it going to Donald, who was by this time having books ghost-written about how to succeed in business.

Of course it can be argued that Trump has one real talent – for self-promotion. This surely proves that he’s more than just a spoilt, over-grown pre-teen. Or maybe not. It doesn’t take much effort to big-note yourself, especially when, due to the luck of your family background, you can appear to walk the walk, especially in those rallies full of uncritical people desperate to believe in the American Business Hero. Indeed, Trump’s adolescent antics at those rallies tend to convince his base that they too can become rich and successful idiots. You don’t actually have to know anything  or to make much sense. Confidence is the trick.

It’s not likely we’ll ever know about the connections within Trump’s frontal and prefrontal cortices, but we can learn some general things about under-development or pre-development in those regions, and the typical behaviour this produces, and in my next post – because this one’s gone on too long  – I’ll utilise the chapter on adolescence in Sapolsky’s Behave, and perhaps other texts and sources – apparently Michelle Obama brought Trump’s inchoate frontal cortex to the public’s attention during the election – to explore further the confident incompetence of the American president.

Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2018 at 5:38 pm

about ozone, its production and depletion

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an Arctic polar stratospheric cloud, photographed in Sweden (filched from a website of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory)

People will remember the ‘hole in the ozone’ issue that came up in the eighties I think, and investigators found that it was all down to CFCs, which were quite quickly banned, and then everything was hunky dory….

Or that’s how I vaguely recall it. Time to take a much closer look. 

I take my cue from ‘An ancient ozone catastrophe?’, chapter 4 of David Beerling’s The emerald planet, in which he looks at the evidence for a previous ozone disaster and its possible relation to the great Permian extinction of 252 millions years ago. I’ll probe into that matter in another post. In this post I’ll try to answer some more basic questions – what is ozone, where is the ozone layer and why does it have a hole in it?

Ozone is also known as trioxygen, which gives a handy clue to its structure. Oxygen can exist in different allotropes or molecular structures which are more or less stable. O3, ozone, is much less stable than O2 and has a very pungent chlorine-like odour and a pale blue colour. It’s present in minute quantities throughout the atmosphere but is most concentrated in the lower part of the stratosphere, 20 to 30 kilometres above the Earth’s surface. This region is called the ozone layer, or ozone shield, though it’s still not particularly dense with ozone, and that density varies geographically and seasonally. Ozone’s instability means that it doesn’t last long, and has to be replenished continually.

In 1928 chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were developed as a seemingly safe form of refrigerant, which, under patent as Freon, came to be used in air-conditioners, fridges, hair-sprays and a variety of other products. As it turned out, these CFCs aren’t so harmless when they reach the upper atmosphere, where the chlorine reacts with ozone to form chlorine monoxide (ClO), and regular O2. This reaction is activated by ultraviolet radiation, which then breaks up the unstable ClO, leaving the chlorine to react with more ozone in a continuing cycle.

By the eighties, it had become clear that something was going wrong with the ozone layer. Studies revealed that a gigantic hole in the layer had opened up over Antarctica, and without going into detail, CFCs were found to be largely responsible. There was the usual fight with vested business interests, but in 1987 the Montreal protocol against the use of ozone-depleting substances (ODS) was drawn up, a landmark agreement which has been successful in starting off the long and far from completed process of repair of the ozone shield.

As a very effective oxidant, ozone has many commercial applications, but the same oxidising property makes it a danger to plant and animal tissue. Much better for us to keep most of it up above the troposphere, where its ability to absorb UV radiation has made it virtually essential for maintaining healthy life on Earth’s surface. 

So here are some questions. Why does ozone proliferate particularly at the top of the troposphere, in the lower stratosphere? If it’s so reactive, how does it maintain itself at a particular rate? Has the thinning or reduction of that layer seriously influenced life on Earth in the past? From my reading, mainly of Beerling, I think I can answer the first two questions. The third question, which Beerling explores in the above-mentioned chapter of his book, is more speculative, and more interesting. 

Sidney Chapman, a brilliant geophysicist and mathematician of the early twentieth century, essentially answered the first question. He realised that ozone was both formed and destroyed by the action of sunlight, specifically UV radiation, on atmospheric oxygen. He calculated that this action would reduce and finally stop at a point approximately 15 km above sea level, because the reactions which had produced the ozone higher up had absorbed the UV radiation in the process. No activation energy to produce any more ozone. That explained the lower limit of ozone. The upper limit was explained by the lack of oxygen in the upper stratosphere to produce a stable layer – for production to exceed destruction. This was interesting confirmation of observations made earlier by the meteorologist and balloonist Léon-Phillippe Teisserenc de Bort, who noted that, contrary to his expectations, the air temperature didn’t fall gradually with altitude but reached a point of stabilisation where the air even seemed to become warmer. He named this upper layer of air the stratosphere, and the cooler more turbulent layer below he called the troposphere. It’s now known that this upper-air warming is caused by the absorption of UV radiation by ozone.

Our picture of ozone still had some holes in it, however, as it seemed there was a lot less of it around than the calculations of Chapman suggested. To quote from Beerling’s book: 

… there had to be some as-yet unappreciated means by which ozone was being destroyed. The fundamental leap required to solve the problem was taken comparatively recently, in 1970, by a then young scientist called Paul Crutzen. Crutzen showed that, remarkably, the oxides of nitrogen, produced by soil microbes, catalysed the destruction of ozone many kilometres up in the stratosphere. Few people appreciate the marvellous fact that the cycling of nitrogen by the biosphere exerts an influence on the global ozone layer: life on Earth reaches out to the chemistry of the stratosphere. 

Now to explain why the hole in the ozone shield occurred above the Antarctic. My understanding and explanation starts with reading Beerling and ends with this post from the USA’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory (NOAA/ESRL). 

The ozone hole over Antarctica varies in size, and is largest in the months of winter and early spring. During these months, due to the large and mountainous land mass there, average minimum temperatures can reach as low as −90°C, which is on average 10°C lower than Arctic winter minimums (Arctic temperatures are generally more variable than in the Antarctic). When winter minimums fall below around −78°C at the poles, polar stratospheric clouds are formed, and this happens far more often in the Antarctic – for about five months in the year. Chemical reactions between halogen gases and these clouds produce the highly reactive gases chlorine monoxide (ClO) and bromine monoxide (BrO), which are destructive to ozone. 

this graphic shows that the Antarctic stratosphere is consistently colder, and less variable in temperature, than the Arctic. Polar stratospheric clouds (PSCs) form at −78°C

Most ozone is produced in the tropical stratosphere, in reactions driven by sunlight, but a slow movement of stratospheric air, known as the Brewer-Dobson circulation, transports it over time to the poles, so that ozone ends up being more sparse in the tropics. Interestingly, although most ozone-depleting substances – mainly halogen gases – are produced in the more humanly-populated northern hemisphere, complex tropospheric convection patterns distribute the gases more or less evenly throughout the lower atmosphere. Once in the stratosphere and distributed to the poles, the air carrying the halogen-gas products becomes isolated due to strong circumpolar winds, which are at their height during winter and early spring. This isolation preserves ozone depletion reactions for many weeks or months. The polar vortex at the Antarctic, being stronger than in the Arctic, is more effective in reducing the flow of ozone from tropical regions. 

So – I’ve looked here briefly at what ozone is, where it is, and how it’s produced and destroyed, but I haven’t really touched on its importance for protecting life here on Earth. So that, and whether its depletion may have had catastrophic consequences 250 million years ago, will be the focus of my next post. 

References

The Emerald Planet, by David Beerling, Oxford Landmark Science, 2009

https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/csd/assessments/ozone/2010/twentyquestions/Q10.pdf

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brewer–Dobson_circulation

Written by stewart henderson

October 3, 2018 at 9:24 pm

Brat Cavernaugh, or the Ruling Class at play: part two

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Mitch McConnell, ruthless American conservative

 

In a speech to his old high school in 2015, Kavanaugh remarked smirkily that ‘what happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep, that’s been a good thing for all of us..’ It’s fascinating how such a seemingly harmless piece of banter can take on much darker tones as information comes to light. For example, considering that Georgetown Prep has always been an all-boys’ school, ‘all of us’ clearly refers to only one gender, and considering that the cloud gathering over Kavanaugh now is all about his and his preppy mates’ treatment of the opposite sex, which may have at times bordered on criminality, this hiding of the truth about goings-on at the school becomes very disturbing. 

The intense focus on Kavanaugh in recent weeks has revealed someone who knows how to be evasive in a lawyerly way. The end result, before the scandalous claims began mounting up, was that Democrats and moderate Republicans, in Congress and out, had no clear idea of his views on Roe v Wade, presidential power and immunity, or any other key issue that concerned them. It can be argued that this evasiveness was a product of ‘due judiciousness’, the view that a judge can’t answer these general questions, but has to pass judgment on the facts before him in particular instances, but with so much at stake, it’s understandable that those with at least some progressive cells in their body would want a clearer picture. This has in fact been given by examinations of his record of judgements and legal opinions, which don’t provide much hope for progressives.  

More importantly, Kavanaugh’s evasiveness has been very much to the fore as allegations have come to light re his high school and university years. In the case of his most recent appearance before the judiciary committee, this evasiveness has been mixed with, and sometimes masked by, a belligerent and, in my view, self-servingly mawkish tone which I didn’t find conducive to truthfulness. Most importantly, and, I feel, decisively, he managed to avoid answering the question as to whether he would be prepared to submit to an FBI investigation. Not once but on five separate occasions when questioned on the matter. In spite of my squeamishness, I did witness him doing this on one of the cable networks, and to me it was clear what he was doing. As a person who has himself been falsely accused – of a crime even more serious than anything alleged against Kavanaugh – I know how I feel about police investigations – that they should be done as promptly and as thoroughly as humanly possible, and I would certainly have been prepared to testify to the highest authorities under oath many times over to clear my name, and was in fact desperate to do so. And since there were no witnesses to the allegation made against me, I would certainly have been happy to have any and all witnesses to testify to my character in respect of violence, or my accuser’s character in respect of truth-telling. But, being a ‘nobody’, accused by a nobody, I had to sit and by and watch the police do virtually nothing, until forced to do so, after which the case was thrown out. So Kavanaugh’s refusal to answer that question, and his obvious whitewashing of the period in question, can only be explained one way. Innocent people just don’t behave like that, unless there’s something very wrong with them. 

The fact is, Kavanaugh’s obfuscation is incredibly telling, and the majority Republicans, who have now ‘permitted’ an FBI inquiry, ‘limited in scope and time’, are still doing their best to ram through the confirmation ‘no matter what’, according to the dictum of the egregious Mitch McConnell. This is not an investigation which will probe all the facts in the case, because it is limited by a partisan party. Moreover, the recent appearance by Kavanaugh was conducted under oath, and a number of classmates have since come forward to point out that he told lies under that oath, about his drinking habits, which he massively downplayed while also talking, strangely, at length, about the pleasures of beer. He presented himself as a church-going, highly studious, sporty type whose love of beer wasn’t excessive. Classmates have come forward to say that he was very often drunk, that he was a mean drunk, a sloppy drunk and so forth, and that he therefore lied under oath, which should be immediately disqualifying. 

However, having said that, it’s likely that the FBI will not be investigating his drinking habits, they will only concern themselves, as directed, with the alleged assault or assaults. Though it isn’t entirely clear, it seems, what the FBI’s brief is. In fact, as I write, the goalposts keep shifting. The White House and Trump seemed to broaden the investigation, then the media were told, no, it would remain limited, etc, and the FBI itself seemed confused about all the mixed signals. The bureau is supposed to take its orders from the White House in this instance, which is itself a worry. Not surprisingly, Trump is now heaping praise on the FBI – at least until their findings are presented.

But to return to Kavanaugh’s final ‘testimony’. It was belligerent and evasive, but also partisan and Trumpian – blaming the Clintons for a set-up and an ambush. It’s noteworthy that Trump was critical of Kavanaugh’s performance in his first hearing, and it’s well-known that Kavanaugh had been ‘rehearsing’ his performance at the White House, so this time he did his master’s bidding and played the witch-hunt card, thus managing to be offensively belligerent and obsequious at the same time – though why he chose to play to an audience of one, when the confirmation was largely out of Trump’s hands, is anyone’s guess.

The most recent development, which seems to be Trump’s own doing, is that the FBI is being given as wide a scope as it needs. From this, I’m getting the impression that Trump is preparing to wash his hands of Kavanaugh – to throw him under that very destructive bus the Yanks keep talking about – but the GOP is definitely not. Which leaves the FBI as the piggy in the middle, with the White House giving carte blanche, and the Republican Senators, under the whip of the disgusting McConnell, saying it all has to be wrapped up by Friday (October 5). It’s an impossibly ludicrous situation. Apparently the FBI is currently busy turning away an increasing number of people who want to speak to the agency about Kavanaugh’s drunken loutishness during his college days. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Brett was then something of a lout, and is now something of a liar. All in all it’s the behaviour of that class of people I recall from my own university days – students of the moneyed professions, behaving boorishly in the bar, mixing only with their own kind, man-spreading smugly, making a moat of waste and filth around their table as they disgorged food, drink, fag-ends and assorted packaging over the course of a fun evening. The sort of people worth avoiding, for a lifetime. Everything I’ve observed about Kavanaugh recently fits that picture to a t. Having said that, having been a loutish youth over thirty years ago isn’t a crime. Pretending that you never really behaved badly isn’t either. But, on the one hand, we’re not talking about criminality, we’re talking about suitability for a particular job, a job that clearly requires great integrity (as does the job of US President, but that’s another story…). On the other hand, the possibility of a serious crime is in question, and that won’t be properly investigated, because of the determination of McConnell and the GOP. So, if the GOP manage to get him confirmed, it will destroy the credibility of their party for a long time into the future – and I believe Kavanaugh can be impeached. Though he may have to wait in line. 

Written by stewart henderson

October 3, 2018 at 2:07 pm

Brat Cavernaugh, or the Ruling Class at play: part one

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I’ve watched with increasing fascination, bemusement, amusement and horror, the display of hypocrisy, smugness, disbelief and final panic that has been the Republican attempt to confirm sweet little Brett Kavanaugh as the next Supreme Court justice in the USA. And I have to admit from the outset that, as a working class boy from one of the least privileged suburbs in the hinterland of Australia, I will admit to having an unapologetic anti-ruling class bias. So you might take my incredibly insightful commentary as follows with a grain of salt.

It has been the apparent aim of America’s current Chief Sexist to stack the US Supreme Court with like-minded sexists, so that they can overturn Roe v Wade and impress upon society that if girls are stupid enough to get pregnant they have to give birth to the consequences and devote their lives to making the best of their offspring – at least the male ones. 

So with that in mind, the Chief Sexist has sought out a facilitator for this desired outcome, this happy return to the patriarchal status quo. However, the Chief Sexist has a not-so-hidden other agenda. Having engaged in a spot of what losers may call hanky-panky re financial and other dealings, including with those who refuse to recognise their place within the patriarchy, he wants protection from those, such as the FBI and other insufferable meddlers, who seek to challenge the Natural Authority of the Sexist in Chief in his mission to make America male again, and to ensure that his leadership will not be circumscribed by Loser’s Law. And he has found in little Bretty an acolyte who will perfectly serve his purpose.

Okay, enough. As I write, the hearing into Kavanaugh’s fitness to be on the US Supreme Court is over, and the vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee will take place tomorrow morning. The committee consists of 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats. I believe that if this vote approves Kavanaugh’s confirmation, there will be a full senate vote to confirm him. I’m hoping and expecting the confirmation to fail at either of these two hurdles. 

I haven’t watched the televised hearing of Blasey Ford’s and Kavanaugh’s testimonies, due to squeamishness, so I’m relying on the reporting and commentaries of journalists and other experts. From all reports, Blasey Ford’s testimony was authentic, detailed, insofar as a memory from 36 years ago can be, and convincing. Most importantly, she stated that she was 100% certain that it was Kavanaugh who attacked her. Kavanaugh, who of course had no story to relate since he denies that the activity ever occurred, was in some ways disadvantaged by the situation – how many ways can you deny an occurrence or go on about what an upstanding citizen you are? 

And yet. As many people have pointed out, this wasn’t a hearing which was designed to uncover the truth. It pitted two people against each other, with the reward going to the most convincing, in the subjective judgement of the audience – not the TV audience, but the audience of 21 Senators. And considering that this hearing was all about deciding someone’s fitness for the Supreme Court, it was a total farce. And the blame for this lies squarely with the Republican Party. 

The GOP and its financial backers have had one aim in mind with all this, to get a second conservative, or ultra-conservative, Justice on the Supreme Court during this presidential term. This was put in the bluntest terms by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell only a few days ago, when he promised his ‘base’ that, no matter what, Kavanaugh would take his place on the court in the very near future. So much for due process, remembering that it was McConnell who orchestrated the failure of Obama’s nomination, Merrick Garland, to even get a hearing for the best part of a year.

Apparently GOP Senator Lindsey Graham agrees with me that this whole process is an ‘unethical sham’, but for entirely different reasons. As to what his reasons are, they’re of no interest to me. What I’m interested in is the allegations against Kavanaugh, why they’ve arisen now, whether they should be taken seriously, and what should be done. 

Before proceeding I should say that not only do I prefer to avoid highly emotional moments such as the above-mentioned testimonies, I also avoid, as far as I can, listening to or watching Donald Trump. I decided that I didn’t want such a repellant individual on my TV or computer screens long before he entered politics – so it wasn’t a political decision. I also don’t accept that Trump is a Republican or a Democrat, or even a politician in any meaningful sense of the word. Just what I think he is, I won’t elaborate on here. So I tend to fast-forward or mute when the cable news networks upon which I rely for information switch to the White House or a Trump rally. Where Trump’s views on this matter are relevant, I’ll rely on other sources for his statements.

As Kavanaugh’s confirmation process approached, a great deal of attention became focused on his views re Roe v Wade, presidential powers, immigration, gun rights, environmental issues and the like. His work as a Republican Party operative during the G W Bush presidency, and as assistant to Ken Starr during the Clinton impeachment process, and his entire background of right-wing privilege, his attendance at an exclusive all-boys Catholic high school, followed by Yale University and Law School, followed by clerking for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, mark him out as a scion of the conservative ruling class. Naturally there has been great concern among progressives about his promotion to the Supreme Court.

Concerned oppositionists naturally began digging into Kavanaugh’s past, as I assume has always been the case when nominees of a partisan persuasion get close to being confirmed. A chink in the armour appeared to be his activities as a teenager, and rumours about heavy drinking and related unseemly behaviour, especially in the treatment of girls/women. Kavanaugh’s high school year-book contained hints of such, but he emphatically denied any wrong-doing, apart from the odd ‘cringeworthy’ moment. However, it was being noticed by Kavanaugh’s critics that he seemed to be using his legal skills to be evading direct answers to more specific questions, both in regard to his past and in regard to his views on key issues that might come up before the Supreme Court in the future.

Then came a bombshell claim about an incident that occurred 36 years ago at a party during Kavanaugh’s high school years, when he was 17. The claim was about an assault which may have amounted to an attempted rape. The claimant, Professor Christine Blasey Ford, was 15 years old at the time. As Republicans sought to play down or repudiate the claim, and others sought to ‘weaponise it’ against the GOP and its attempt to rush everything through, many observers questioned the timing. However, Blasey Ford had written to Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein detailing the incident back in July, in confidence. When the letter was apparently leaked to the press, Republicans tried to blame Feinstein and the Democrats for leaking it, claiming a smear campaign conducted by the opposition. This has been denied both by Feinstein and by the press. What seems to have happened is that stories of Kavanaugh’s alcohol-fuelled bad behaviour at high school and college were gradually gaining traction, as well as rumours regarding Blasey Ford’s letter, which eventually led to the leak, and which led to further allegations, from two other women. All three have allowed themselves to be named, and have expressed a preparedness to testify under oath and to co-operate fully with an FBI investigation of their claims. Clearly this relates to Kavanaugh’s nomination, and to concerns these women have as to his fitness for such high office. 

Still the question can be asked as to why these serious allegations weren’t brought up much earlier. Trump’s ridiculous claim that Blasey Ford, or her parents, would obviously have gone to the police 36 years ago if the incident had really happened, can be easily dismissed. My own childhood tells me that my parents would be the last people I would confide in at that age, were I a witness to such events, nor would I or the girls I knew at the time have reported such behaviour to the police. Not a chance. My guess is that conservative upper-class, reputation-obsessed kids would be far less likely to expose themselves and their families to the opprobrium of having played any part in such activities, however unwittingly, than mere human dross such as myself. 

Again, as time went by, these young women would have been concerned to preserve their reputations at least until those reputations were well-established. It’s notable that of the three female complainants who have been named in the press, Christine Blasey Ford is now a widely published professor of psychology at Palo Alto University and a research psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Julie Swetnick has worked in Washington in the public and private sectors, and ‘has held several government clearances, including with the State Department and the Justice Department’.Deborah Ramirez works for the Boulder County housing department in Colorado and has worked with a domestic violence organisation, for which she remains on the board. All three appear to be highly credible, and have far far more to lose than to gain in coming forward in this way – sometimes reluctantly.  Finally, I don’t see the fact that these women have come out about these allegations recently as a trap. The ‘Me Too’ movement, the fact that the object of these serious allegations is on the verge of becoming a very powerful Supreme Court Justice, as well as pressure from the press and from friends and family previously confided in, have all doubtless played their part. In any case, the question of whether these allegations are true is far more important than their timing. And that brings me to the response of Kavanaugh. I’ll focus on that in my next post.


Written by stewart henderson

September 30, 2018 at 9:30 pm

Posted in Congress, Donald Trump, politics

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