Monday, December 21, 2009

I'm Sorry, Son.

The Copenhagen Accord is an unmitigated disaster. Sure, it looks reasonable, the two largest polluters have agreed to take a look at their emissions and possibly decide on a target sometime in the future.

As I've said before, the international community has just a few years to agree to, engineer, and implement a full solution. We're expected, on our current course, to hit 650 ppmv CO2 by 2100. That's without all possible feedbacks included, such as methane release from the ocean bottom, or sudden and complete melting of the permafrost.

If we can't even agree to our limits until 2020, there is no possibility of reducing them enough to avoid 2 or 3 degrees C warming. I've hinted at problems associated with various warming scenarios before, but here are a few that we are going to see. Not "might" see, but going to see because of the failures of vision at the Copenhagen summit.

This is what's going to happen as we hit 2 degrees C warming, which was avoidable ten years ago, mostly avoidable five years ago, and is completely unavoidable now:
  • Dramatic changes to weather patterns worldwide
  • Elimination of fresh water for 1/3 of world's land surface
  • Permanent drought in US southwest, Australia, and Africa
  • Much of inner Australia will burn
  • Aquifer levels under the US Great Plains, Saudi Arabia, and Northern China are falling fast, without replenishment.
  • Rise of sea levels by at least 1.2 meters (2.75 billion people affected)
  • Food & water shortages will cause unstable States to fail:
    • African states, Pakistan*, North Korea*, Somalia, Iraq,
    • India*, China*, Afghanistan, Israel* Sudan, Lebanon*, ...
  • 1 degree of warming: wheat, corn, rice yields drop 10%.
  • Global food reserve was at less than 62 days and declining in 2008.
  • Disease epidemics will become worse and last longer
  • Over-Consumption is worse than high population.
Those states with a "*" after them are declared or undeclared nuclear states. We need to plan on Pakistan and North Korea failing or worse within the next 50 years. India's inability to provide clean water to its 1.1 billion people is going to make it unstable in the next few decades as well. China may be able to weather most of the problems, but its lack of clean water is going to be a huge problem to its 1.3 billion people. In 1997, Israel was withdrawing 287 cubic meters of water per capita. It's available resources were only 265 cubic meters per capita. The extra 8.3% came from other countries.

At 3 or more degrees C warming, we will see the following (in fact, some of this is happening already--we don't fully understand all of the feedback mechanisms):
  • At or above 2 degrees of warming, positive feedback systems become active.
    • Permafrost will begin to melt more quickly, releasing CO2.
    • Methane will be released from the seafloor bottoms, adding more GHG to atmosphere.
    • Composting rate of organic matter increases, CO2 release.
    • Amazon forest, grasslands die & burn, releasing CO2.
    • Plants begin to release CO2 instead of absorbing it.
  • At 3 degrees warming, run-away permafrost melting will begin, releasing more and more CO2.
  • 3-4 degrees warming is avoidable if we cut emissions by 80% by 2020.
  • At 6 degrees warming, hydrogen sulfide gas makes up a large part of the atmosphere.
  • We will hit 5-7 degrees of warming by 2100 at current emission growth rate of CO2.
Since the Copenhagen Accord doesn't commit anyone to cutting emissions 80% by 2020, but instead commits nations to talking some more, we have guaranteed 3-4 degrees warming, and that means that feedbacks will almost guarantee 5-7 degrees of warming by 2100. With the last, best hope having faded, we need to start talking about large-scale adaptation in addition to mitigation. See the blue arrow in the graphic below? That assumes that next year we'll start cutting emissions, not just talking about it, but actually cutting. So, we're looking at the orange or, more likely, the red arrows.

So, let me just say, son, that while we love you, we didn't think your future is important enough to protect by sacrificing any of our own comfort. Sorry. We hope that some of you will forgive us, but understand if that's difficult to do. Also, those morons who thought it would be a good idea to dump billions of tons of chalk into the oceans in 2025? We didn't do anything to stop them because, well, we just couldn't be bothered.

See this video of a talk at AGU last week.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Population Control a Solution to Human-Induced Global Climate Change?


I've seen more than a few suggestions that population is the problem to global warming/global climate change and therefore The Solution is population control.

There are three, surprisingly unrelated issues in the above statement.

First, the world is probably overpopulated. There are all kinds of discussions of the carrying (PDF) capacity (PDF) of the Earth. Most conclude that we've met that carrying capacity and that we're living on borrowed time. How much time is, of course, not clear.

As some examples of the idea that we've reached the limit of our ecosystem's carrying capacity:

In 1999, it was estimated that the world had about 116 days of food reserves stored. That is, if all food production stopped, we'd have about 116 days of food available to feed everyone in the world. As of 2006, those reserves had shrunk to 56 days.

Many people (PDF) agree (PDF) that we've reached the peak of oil production and that oil and its derivatives will become more and more difficult to acquire. That matters because all kinds of quality of life issues are directly related to availability of (cheap, easy) energy supplies. That is, we can extend the carrying capacity of an ecosystem by introducing external energy sources.

Human-induced global climate change is due, basically to resource utilization. There are too many of us and we're consuming too much energy making too much stuff.

From those three examples, I'm going to move on with the assumption that everyone agrees that we've reached (some kind of) carrying capacity of our ecosystem. That is, the earth is overpopulated by humans.

Can we solve that last example by limiting births? First, we have to understand the problem. I've posted several times about the problem of human-induced climate change. The biggest problem with our releasing of CO2 into the atmosphere is that there is a lot of inertia in the atmosphere. We're at 385.99 parts per million by volume CO2 (ppmv) in the atmosphere. During the Cretaceous, the atmosphere was at 340 ppmv but was 5 degrees C warmer (on average). Why aren't we this warm yet? Because it takes time for the atmosphere to respond. We may not get that warm this time, but even if we cut all CO2 emissions to 0, we'd still warm at least 1 to 2 degrees C over the next few centuries.

That's where the problem comes in. The scientific publications and the press are talking about 2050 (or something similar) as a target date for limiting CO2 concentrations, but we're already above the concentrations that will push us to 2 or more degrees C of warming and all of the associated problems. Those problems will not be slight, nor will they be easy to adapt to, but they will not be completely catastrophic for the entire human race. Some people in some places will suffer a lot more than others.

Now, with that in mind, let's go back to the idea of population control. We're expected to hit seven billion people within the next decade. For this little thought experiment, let's go with something simple and say we have no (0) births for 10 years. That is, we leave the world population at 6,790,062,216 (July 2009 est.) for the next 10 years. Our emissions of CO2 are growing at a rate of about 2-3% per year. Assuming all of that is due to population increases (which it isn't) and we would stop increasing our CO2 emissions (but not stop emitting), we'd still be emitting about 1.8 ppmv per year. So, we'd still be increasing our CO2 emissions over the 10 years of no population additions (and some population decreases, which I'm ignoring for the moment). So, we wouldn't stay at 385.99 ppmv over the decade of no births. We'd still be increasing, and we'd still be causing irrecoverable harm.

I ignored deaths in the above estimates. Let me correct that here. Let's assume, for a second, that the 1.8 ppmv of CO2 emissions per year is evenly distributed to all humans (it's not--more in a bit). Let's also assume the CIA estimate for death rate (8.2 per 1,000 people) is an accurate average. First, there is an average of 56 million deaths per year (assuming no increase) for the decade of no births. That's a decrease in the world population of 560 million people. Out of 6790 million people. We'd be down to 6230 million people (6.23 billion). Let's now go back to emissions. 1.8 ppmv per year for all 6790 million people is about 2.7 x 10^-4 ppmv per person per year. If we had "only" 6230 million people at the end of the decade, we'd be down to 1.65 ppmv per year. Or a rather slight decrease in emissions by the end of the decade of no births. We'd still be emitting too much, and it would be too late to do anything about it!

There's a huge problem with all of the above: Emissions are not equally divided. In fact, the five largest energy users (68%) account for only 36% of the world's population. That means that controlling population will only have an effect on emissions after many generations, by which time it would be way too late.

We need to control emissions, not population. At some point we'll have to deal with population, but it's NOT the solution to human-induced global climate change. It's not even A solution. It's a solution to exceeding carrying capacity, but it would be too little, too late to affect climate change... Unless people are advocating the removal of the 36% who pollute the most, which I'm sure is not the case since most of the people advocating population control are a part of that 36%. Even if we killed off "the other" 64% of the population as a "solution" we'd only buy ourselves a few decades at our current consumption.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

An Earth-Like Exoplanet With a Very Alien Atmosphere

Some time ago, I missed posting about the discovery of a (large) Earth-like planet discovery. COROT-7b was discovered earlier this year. It's about 1.7 times the diameter of Earth, and has about the same density. That is, it's made of rock. Most exoplanets we've seen are made of gas, so this was a cool discovery. I dropped the ball on posting about it. I apologize.

Now, however, some people whose modeling (PDF) work is exemplary decided to have a little fun with this planet. See, it orbits its star with a year that is about 20 hours long. That's very, very, very close to the star. Mercury's orbital period (its year) is about 88 of our days. The closer you are to the sun, the faster your orbit.

So, this rocky planet is very close to its sun. That means that it is so close that its daytime temperatures reach 1800 to 2600 Kelvins (there is no "degrees kelvin", it's just Kelvins). That's hot enough to vaporize rock. Therefore, rock will likely be vaporized from the surface of this planet.

Now, whether this planet has a day-night cycle or is tidally locked so one face always sees the sun is unclear. And not particularly relevant to this discussion. See, if the planet has a diurnal cycle, then the nighttime comes for the area that had rock vaporized. If it doesn't, then the hot atmosphere moves to the cold side due to density (and other) differences. Either way, this hot atmosphere of minerals will condense out as it moves to the cold side of the planet. That is, you would see molten rock falling from the sky. Then (possibly very short-lived) rivers of molten rock flowing on the surface. In some instances, you might even get pebbles raining out (think hail) if the winds are strong enough and the temperatures low enough.

Not only that, but because of the atmospheric temperature differences, you'd have different layers of mineral vapors at different heights. Quite a view, I would imagine.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

There is no climate debate among scientists.

I find myself, once again, having to respond to lies and misunderstandings about climate science. This time, a good friend forwarded an email that supposedly was written for some newspaper or other. The junk is at the bottom of the post. My response is first.

There is no debate among scientists.

The physics and chemistry is well understood. The models are not perfect but every single one, all independent, agree to within a few per cent. The physics of CO2 and other greenhouse gases absorbing re-radiated energy from the ground is well understood. The feedback mechanisms (glacial melting, permafrost release of CO2, etc.) are not as well understood, but we've consistently been predicting slower than-reality-feedbacks.

Their first claimed "PhD" on the list is someone who believes in Intelligent Design; these people are not scientists and do not understand science.

The earth's climate is changing faster than it ever has before and it is due to humans. If we don't get our heads out of the sand, all of us are going to be irrelevant. I didn't know that I should even bother refuting the points, as they've been refuted time and time again. But, I will because I assume nobody who reads this is completely lost to reality.

1) The average temperature of our earth has been unchanged for the last 10 years, and in fact is now trending downward.

Not true. There was a slight dip in 2008 compared with 2005-2007, but that does not constitute a trend.

2) CO² is only 3.6 percent of the total greenhouse gasses, when water vapor, the largest greenhouse gas is included. Only ..117 percent of this CO² is manmade. This small amount of CO² makes little difference in our global temperature.

Currently, CO2 concentration is 384 parts per million by volume (ppmv). That's 35% (100 ppmv) higher than it was in 1832. Most of the increase is due to the industrial revolution and modern-day use of fossil fuels--humans. I don't know what "..117 percent" means. I assume they mean one of 0.117%, 1.17%, or 11.7%, none of which are true. During the Cretaceous (146 to 65 million years ago), the average CO2 concentration was 340 ppmv. That's less than what it is
now, but the average temperature was about 5 degrees C higher than it is now. Why? The difference is that the cretaceous had 10 million years or so for CO2 to stabilize at 340 ppmv and begin decreasing, and for temperatures to increase. We've had since 1832 for the CO2 concentration to increase 100 ppmv. The temperatures have not yet begun to increase significantly.

The Earth is not going to melt because of our activities, but things are going to change, and the rate at which natural systems will have to evolve is increasing and those systems are falling behind. For an example, see here:

CO2 concentration absolutely makes a difference in global temperature. The physics of how it works is relatively simple, and the Venusian atmosphere is a perfect example of a runaway greenhouse atmosphere. Water vapor, methane, ozone, and a few others are also significant
greenhouse gases. Water vapor and methane are actually stronger greenhouse gases than CO2. If it weren't for these greenhouse gases, the average temperature of the earth would be about -18 degrees C (0 F). Because of greenhouse gases, the average temperature is 15C. However, in the past 200 years, we've warmed approximately 2 degrees C

3) In fact the earth has only warmed 1/10th of a degree due to CO² since the industrial revolution, and has=2 0warmed only one (1) degree in the last 150 years from all causes.

The average temperature from 1906 to 2005 has increased by 0.74 degrees C. The rate of warming over the last 50 years of that period was almost double the rate for the whole period.

Here are some things that happen at ~2 degrees C warming:
  • Weather patterns worldwide will change (unpredictably, and happening now)
  • Fresh water will be lost for ~1/3 of the world's land surface (aquifer
  • levels in US southwest, Saudi Arabia, China are crashing right now)
  • Permanent droughts in the US southwest, Australia, and Africa (happening now)
  • Sea levels will rise 1.2 meters or so (some due to temperature
  • increase of the oceans, and a lot due to melting ice; sea levels have already risen.)
  • Wheat, corn, rice yields are dropping by about 10% (global food reserve was at less than 62 days and declining in 2008)

Back to answering these points:

4) The primary reason that CO² is ineffective in warming our earth is because the CO² absorption band in the atmosphere is almost saturated, so adding more CO² has little effect.

This makes no sense. The CO2 absorption band cannot BE "saturated". It's just a frequency of light that CO2 absorbs. The re-radiated energy from the Earth's surface and the sun provide that light, and there's not enough CO2 in the entire earth to "saturate" that band. This is nonsense.

5) CO² is not a harmful gas to humans, even though it has been declared a pollutant. It is a vital fertilizer to plant life. To be harmful to humans the concentration would need to be 6,000 parts per
million. We are at 380 PPM at present. The average CO² concentration
in submarines is 4,000 PPM and this does not make the submariners

What does a submarine have to do with the earth's atmosphere. We're not talking about toxicity. We're talking about energy absorption and retention, something completely different from toxicity. Plants need it, yes, but they evolved to use CO2 in concentrations of around 200 to 300 ppmv, not 400+ ppmv. At too high a temperature, plants start to release CO2, not absorb it.

Toxicity of CO2 from:
CO2 is a simple asphyxiant and lethal asphyxiations have been reported at concentrations as low as 110,000 ppm (Hamilton and Hardy 1974). Loss of consciousness can occur within a minute of exposure at 300,000 ppm and within 5-10 minutes (min) of exposure at 100,000 ppm (HSDB 2004). The effects of concentrations of CO2 between 7,000 and 300,000 ppm in humans and animals are discussed below and include tremor, headaches, chest pain, respiratory and cardiovascular effects, and visual and other central nervous system (CNS) effects.

6) Remember that greenhouse gasses act by absorbing heat, then reradiating it back to earth. The greenhouse alarmists have developed a computer model that predicts, due to the action of gasses, there
will be a “hot spot” in the atmosphere at a height of 12 kilometers.
Actual balloon measurements show no such “hot spot.” This and other
alarmist models have proven to be wrong and erratic.

He's talking about the tropopause. This report:, of which most of you will only be able to see the abstract, shows that he's wrong. There has been an increase of 0.22 to 0.26 degrees C per ten years, consistent with climate models.

7) If we can’t predict next week’s weather, how=2 0can we predict the climate years in the future?

Weather and climate are very different. We cannot predict what any one person will do at a rock concert (go to the bathroom, watch the show, make out with a stranger), but we can predict that the crowd will be watching the show.

8) Polar ice melts and refreezes on a regular cycle with the low point occurring in September in the Northern Hemisphere and March in the Southern Hemisphere. All the melting reported by alarmists in the
Northern Hemisphere in September will be restored in March, year after

Umm. No. The thickness and coverage of the arctic ice has decreased dramatically over time, even during its annual maximum extent. Yes, it melts and refreezes, but each time it refreezes, there's less and less, with a linear trend of -8.7% per decade.

9) Polar bear populations are now four times greater than 50 years ago, even though they are declared an endangered species.
Polar bear populations rebounded after restrictions on hunting. This has nothing to do with global warming. The loss of their habitat does.

10) Melting floating sea ice causes sea level to decrease, not increase. Try this: Fill a glass with ice then add water to the rim. When the ice melts, the water level in the glass drops!

Try this: Freeze pure water. Put those ice cubes in a glass of salt water. Measure the level of the water. Let the pure ice melt. The level of the water will be higher. Salt does not stay in sea water as it freezes.

Next, try this: Put a bowl of salt water in your sink, measure the height of the water. Put ice cubes on a dish rack drainer so that it drains into the bowl of water. Let the ice cubes melt. Watch the water level in the bowl increase. This is what is happening when glaciers and antarctic ice melts. They're on land, not in the sea.

11) If the water level were rising, the angular velocity of the earth would decrease, like a spinning skater who extends her arms. This velocity can be measured precisely and is not changing!

The angular velocity of the Earth HAS decreased:, and the observed melting ice accounts for about 3/4 of the reduction in the angular velocity since 1940.

12) Al Gore tells us that arctic ice cores show that heating occurs after CO² increases. In fact the opposite is true. Ice cores clearly show that temperature decreases are followed by CO² increases and this has happened for hundreds of thousands of years, even without SUVs and
smoke stacks.

This is untrue.

13) Historically, whenever we have a sunspot low we also have a lower temperature. The Little Ice Age in 1600 coincides with a 60 year sunspot low called the Maunder Minimum.

Almost true. The Maunder Minimum was 70 years long (1645 to 1715), the Little Ice Age (which was not a true glacial period, just cold) may have begun in 1250, when the Atlantic ice pack began to regrow, or it may have started as late as 1650 when the local climatic minimum began. So, we had 70 years of low sunspot activity out of a 400-year uncertainty about the BEGINNING, much less about the length of a cold period. The "Little Ice Age" lasted until about 1820.

14) The cooling scare in the 1970s, reported by the media as the Coming ice age,” came during a sunspot dip.

There was no cooling scare. There was a single paper about a possibility of cooling, the media (and recent head-in-the-sand deniers) took up the rest. The greenhouse gas problem has been known since at least 1859.

Sunspot activity is on an ~11 year cycle. We do not see a 11 year cycle in the warming and cooling of the Earth. We see an exponential trend toward higher temperatures. We're in the middle of another solar minimum right now, during which we've experienced the highest globally averaged temperatures on historical record.

15) Sunspots set up an ionized layer around the planet which blocks
incoming cosmic radiation.

Umm... Not really. Increased sunspot activity is also often accompanied by increases in outflow of matter from the sun (an increase in the solar wind). Charged particles in the solar wind
affect the upper atmosphere (the ionosphere) and mess up communications. Sometimes, the atmosphere is warmed by these interactions and becomes slightly larger, which also affects communications satellites.

16) Cosmic rays cause cloud formation which in turn cools the earth. So, few sunspots — cooler earth. More sunspots — warmer earth.

There is no correlation between cosmic ray activity and cloud formation. There is no evidence that cosmic ray activity has decreased over the last few decades.

17) We are in an historic sunspot low. That’s why winters are colder
and longer.

Winters are NOT longer, nor are they colder.
Go to the Seasonal Mean Temperature Change most of the way down the page.
The same trend seen in global average temperatures is seen in winter temperatures. Temperatures are increasing.

18) If sunspot cycle 24 does not start soon in earnest, blow more insulation in your attics! It is also clear that in periods of high sunspot activity, the climate is warmer.

Except the trend for higher temperatures matches a trend for LOWER sunspot activity.

I find it interesting that they started this with denying that there is any warming. Then they moved to arguing that CO2 can't be the cause for the warming we see, then they started arguing that the warming we do see is natural, then they began making up stuff. And they end with conspiracy theories.

Anthropogenic climate change is real. It's happening now, and if we don't stop it, it's going to cause some serious problems for our children and their children.

The rest is just scare tactics. "They're going to eat your babies and
euthanize your grandmother. And also take away your Lincoln

One more thing, though. Stopping the emission of greenhouse gases is actually pretty darn cheap. Especially if you consider the easiest thing to do is not use as much energy. (PDF)

Global warming: Analyze the facts
Colonel, U.S. Army, Retired
With all the debate about Global Warming and Cap and Trade, I think a close examination of the facts is appropriate and badly needed.
The average temperature of our earth has been unchanged for the last 10 years, and in fact is now trending downward. CO² is only 3.6 percent of the total greenhouse gasses, when water vapor, the largest greenhouse gas is included. Only ..117 percent of this CO² is manmade. This small amount of CO² makes little difference in our global temperature. In fact the earth has only warmed 1/10th of a degree due to CO² since the industrial revolution, and has=2 0warmed only one (1) degree in the last 150 years from all causes.
The primary reason that CO² is ineffective in warming our earth is because the CO² absorption band in the atmosphere is almost saturated, so adding more CO² has little effect. CO² is not a harmful gas to humans, even though it has been declared a pollutant. It is a vital fertilizer to plant life. To be harmful to humans the concentration would need to be 6,000 parts per million. We are at 380 PPM at present. The average CO² concentration in submarines is 4,000 PPM and this does not make the submariners sick.
Remember that greenhouse gasses act by absorbing heat, then reradiating it back to earth. The greenhouse alarmists have developed a computer model that predicts, due to the action of gasses, there will be a “hot spot” in the atmosphere at a height of 12 kilometers. Actual balloon measurements show no such “hot spot.” This and other alarmist models have proven to be wrong and erratic. If we can’t predict next week’s weather, how=2 0can we predict the climate years in the future?
Polar ice melts and refreezes on a regular cycle with the low point occurring in September in the Northern Hemisphere and March in the Southern Hemisphere. All the melting reported by alarmists in the Northern Hemisphere in September will be restored in March, year after year! Polar bear populations are now four times greater than 50 years ago, even though they are declared an endangered species.
Melting floating sea ice causes sea level to decrease, not increase. Try this: Fill a glass with ice then add water to the rim. When the ice melts, the water level in the glass drops! If the water level were rising, the angular velocity of the earth would decrease, like a spinning skater who extends her arms. This velocity can be measured precisely and is not changing!
Al Gore tells us that arctic ice cores show that heating occurs after CO² increases. In fact the opposite is true. Ice cores clearly show that temperature decreases are followed by CO² increases and this has happened for hundreds of thousands of years, even without SUVs and smoke stacks.
Historically, whenever we have a sunspot low we also have a lower temperature. The Little Ice Age in 1600 coincides with a 60 year sunspot low called the Maunder Minimum. The cooling scare in the 1970s, reported by the media as the “Coming ice age,” came during a sunspot dip. But why?
Sunspots set up an ionized layer around the planet which blocks incoming cosmic radiation. Cosmic rays cause cloud formation which in turn cools the earth. So, few sunspots — cooler earth. More sunspots — warmer earth. We are in an historic sunspot low. That’s why winters are colder and longer. If sunspot cycle 24 does not start soon in earnest, blow more insulation in your attics! It is also clear that in periods of high sunspot activity, the climate is warmer.
31,000 physical scientists have signed a petition denying any manmade effects on our climate. These are people having no government grants or tenure, so they won’t lose their jobs.
Why would anyone want to convince us that we are causing climate change? This is so they can control:
— What you can eat
— What you can smoke
— What kind of car you can drive
— How much you can drive
— The temperature of your home
— What we can manufacture
— Your power sources
— How many cows you can own
— What light bulb you can use
— What appliances you can use
— Your hot water use
— Your air travel
— Your type of house
— Carbon tax
— Carbon credits
All these things amount to billions of dollars in profit. Follow the money!
$79 billion, and billions of hours of labor and effort have been squandered so far in the USA. The Carbon Market cost will be $2-$10 trillion in the near future if “Cap and Trade” becomes law.
This money and=2 0effort could be used for:
— Reducing real pollutants
— Fighting poverty
— Treating aids and malaria
— Providing adequate drinking water and medical treatment
Public policy which attempts to correct this nonexistent problem could literally cause millions of people to di e.
Considering all of the above, it is clear that climate is changed by nature and not man.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Tonight, at bedtime, after all the fuss and all the wringing of hands and stomping of feet, I experienced the proudest moment, to-date, of my fatherhood.

My son (six and 3/4 years old) was finally in bed when he called his mom for something and since I was there I opened the door. He wanted one of his pillows, which was down stairs.

He was sitting on his bed, next to the window, with the blinds open, in the fading light, marking his place in the Harry Potter 1 book, and wanted the pillow to prop himself up just a bit more so he could read until the light had died completely.

I learned to read before we had any electricity at home and put myself to bed reading with a kerosene lantern (or a dieing flashlight when everyone else wanted to sleep) and have the sharpest vision (20/15 on the Snellen scale) of anyone I know. Yes, I know that a "statistic" of one is completely unscientific, but I have no concerns for his eyesight.

I gave up on the HP books after the third one because the story was boring and repetitive. I hear that it gets better later, but...meh. I have so many other things to read and I'm just not that interested. However, just about anything dear son wants to read is fine with me. He wants to read HP1, he reads HP1. He wants to read it in the faintest light, he reads it in the faintest light.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Travel to Australia

This is not a science post. I am decompressing figuratively and literally (my spine is probably several millimeters shorter than before my over-seas trip). Right now, it's a complaint post. Perhaps in a few paragraphs it'll become better. Certainly in a few days I'll post something worth reading, with pictures.

Let me preface these whines by saying that I had an absolutely wonderful time.

I've been awake going on 28 hours with only a few hours sleep before then. I have done longer stretches of wakefulness, often enjoying them, but those 28 hours were not doing something enjoyable, they were spent stuck in a box with... well, read the rest. I really did have a great time. I just like to whine first then talk about the fun stuff later.

1) people who wear perfume suck more than people who smoke, and in my book smokers are the ultimate in antisocial. Why? Because:
A) It isn't killing them, so they'll continue to do it until they're dead, and they'll wear more and more as the years drag on.
B) It is legal in airplanes, restaurants, etc.
C) It stinks as much as and sometime more than cigarette smoke.
D) Petuli wearers: I'm a self-described hippy, but I could easily convince myself that the life-sentence would be worth washing that stench from your body with nitric acid followed by a copper bath (google it). Especially when that crap is worn inside a closed space, and especially after being awake for more than an entire day. You stink. A lot.
E) Perfume DOES NOT EVER smell good or attractive or sexy or any other such crap. Just disgusting. And the same goes for the perfume men wear. They all smell like a chemical factory, not a human being.
F) Those of us who are allergic don't get relief except through a drug like benadryl.

2) Airport Customs hallways must be designed for bleakness. If you have never seen the movie Joe Vs. The Volcano, go see it. Think of the opening office scene(s), but magnified in bleakness and then compressed into tighter, more airless hallways. I have yet to encounter a pleasant customs area. "Welcome to our Wonderful Country. DO NOT ENJOY IT. Also, Do not bring in nuts; we hate nuts." And there are always perfume wearers.

3) Airplane seats that are leather or faux leather or fake leather or nagahide are not plush, they're not high society, they're not chic, they're not special, they're just uncomfortable. I slip, I slide, and I cannot find a comfortable position. I refuse to lean my seat back if someone is behind me because I always feel like applying the nitric acid-copper bath (see above) to people who do it to me.

4) Americans cannot make a salad. The worst purchased salad I had in Australia was leagues above the best salad I've purchased in the USA. Seriously. Well, okay, that's not entirely true, but it is certainly true that the worst Aussie salad (being just "rocket" and tomatoes) was much, much, much better than the shit people call salad at most take-outs and many sit-down restaurants here in the US. Iceberg? Doesn't exist in the rest of the world. We apparently invented that to complete our descent into tastelessness.

5) Traveling with a young child and not losing it (the mind or the child) is amazingly difficult. I've done it domestically a lot, but I truly feel for those fools who go overseas with more than one. Seriously, how in the world can you keep track of more than one? Maybe that's the trick: if you bring more than one, you can afford to lose one or two.... Hmmm...

6) People in other countries are much nicer to travelers than are people in the US. I have heard of the southern hospitality but haven't actually experienced it when I've traveled to that side of my country. In Aus, people were either genuinely happy to have you staying/eating/visiting/whatevering with them or they were the best actors I've ever seen. The same goes for Switzerland. I'm willing to bet that I've just been lucky, but I'm a pessimist.

7) Big cities are pretty much all alike. There are a few places worth visiting, those places usually charge some sort of entrance fee, and the locals don't want the tourists to find out about their favorites, which are free. The public transportation system always has its own convoluted logic but usually works once it is understood. Finally, the very best places to go are out of the city, but they're a pain to get to from the city. Don't get me wrong, Sydney has some very interesting sites to visit, but next time we're going to the small towns or where there are no towns at all.

8) Skivvy dipping in the Tasman Sea in the middle of southern winter is quite an experience. It's cold out there.

View Larger Map

9) Seeing little penguins coming out of the Tasman sea onto the beach at night to nest is pretty cool.

10) Platypus(es) are smaller than I thought they would be, but they're pretty cool to see.

11) Oh, right, I'm supposed to be whinging.

12) Tasmanian locals are insane drivers. First of all, I am certain that there is not a straight 10 km stretch of road anywhere in Tasmania. Their "highways" are two-direction country roads without shoulders to us. They have maximum speeds of 100 km/hr (62 mph), which I usually stayed well under by at least 20%. The locals drove faster by at least 20%. They also don't know which side of the road they're supposed to on. Seriously. I only had one or two times in parking lots where I found I was on the wrong side of the road (because there weren't any stripes so I couldn't keep a stripe to my left), but on the main roads, I would have locals come around a corner entirely in my lane, take their sweet time (at 120 km/hr; ~75 mph) getting back into their lane, and look at me like I was at fault. Also, they pass on wet, blind turns.

13) In the southern hemisphere, the sun is always in the wrong place. I knew this would be the case, but it still screwed me up. Orienteering or rogaining in winter down there would be a nightmare for me. I really, really, need to get a good compass if I plan to go back for some hiking.

That's all for now. I'm home. I'm glad I went, and I'm glad to be home.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Why do I get cold when I get out of the pool?

Sonny boy is taking swimming lessons again. His lips turn purple when he gets out of the pool, and he is sometimes unable to stop shivering. So, yesterday, he asked me "why do I get cold when I get out of the pool?"

Good question.

First of all, as you all know that water on your skin is evaporated away into the dry air. For water to change phase from liquid to gas requires input of energy (this is called the latent heat of vaporization). If your body is covered in water and the vapor pressure of water in the atmosphere is low enough, the water will want to evaporate. The evaporation requires heat input. The film of water on your body draws that heat from...your body, primarily. The air is, of course, another source, but most of the heat required to change the water to gas comes from your body.

Water has a latent of vaporization of 2441 kJ/kg at 25 degrees Celsius (by the way, centigrade is a meaningless term. There are no degrees centigrade.).

Let's say that a 6-year-old with a height of about 137 cm (4.5 feet for you weirdos) and a weight of about 25 kg (55 pounds...) has a volume of about 25 liters (average human density is about 1010 kg/m^3). Now, as all good physicists do, let's approximate this 6-year-old as a sphere with a volume of 25 liters. That gives us a surface area of .4 m^2 and a radius of 18 cm. Let's assume that there is a 1 mm layer of water on this spherical child. That's a volume of 409 milliliters or .409 kg.

It takes approximately 1000 joules to cause the phase change of this water. A completely unmeasured guess at how quickly Sonny lost heat is that he was shivering within a few seconds of exiting the pool. He had more than 1 mm of water on him, most of which was dried off with a towel. So, let's say he lost about 1000 joules in about 30 seconds. That's about 120kJ joules per hour.

This article talks about heat loss in sedentary people at various temperatures. The average heat loss due to evaporation was about 62 kJ/m^2/hour. Corrected for Son's surface area of 0.4 m^2, we get 300 kJ/m^2/hour, or about five times the sedentary rate of cooling.

You are more likely to lose body temperature (due to evaporation) in a warm, dry place such as AZ than in a cool, wet place like WA. The relative humidity in Flagstaff, AZ in June in the morning is 54% and 21% in the afternoon, but is 83% and 53%, respectively in Seattle. This is why it's easier to get heat exhaustion from 80 degree temperatures in Atlanta (84% and 56% in June) than from 110 degrees in Tucson, AZ (32% and 13% in June); your sweat isn't as effective at removing heat from your body because it's more difficult for it to evaporate.

Wind will cause what's called "forced convection" in which heat is whisked away by the movement of the air around your body (it's more complicated, but that's for another day, perhaps).

So, is there any way to stop kiddo from having purple lips and looking like a goth at 6? Not really. If the pool area had higher humidity, that would slow the evaporation, but people would probably complain about it. Similarly for keeping the pool area warmer (this would allow more heat to come from the air rather than the body). The best way is to dry the kid off as quickly as possible.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Why do dalmations have spots?

This was from Son's Highlight's magazine, but it's an interesting question to me because it involves evolution, though not exactly as Darwin imagined it nor exactly as it works over eons to produce humans from mice. As you read this, remember that I am not a biologist.

Basically, because people like the genetic mutation that make some dalmations spotted, people breed spotted dalmations more than dalmations with splotches. Aside: Of course, such inbreeding eventually leads to excessive genetic problems. In the case of dalmations, "purebreds" are very likely to experience the dog equivalent of kidney stones.

So, what does this have to do with evolution. This is basically microevolution.

In this case, we have a particular genetic mutation (spots vs. splotchs) and a particular desire for spots by would-be purchasers, the "environmental stress" is effected by the breeders choosing to breed only those dogs with desirable spot patterns. Over time, in the population of dalmations that are bred in this way, there will be fewer and fewer dalmations born with splotchs rather than spots.

This is a very simplified example of evolution, with a million problems. Get over it. Evolution is fact.

I've been somewhat combative in my recent posts, including this one. I should (and do) apologize to you few loyal readers.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Paper Money

This is a rant.

The conversation went something like this:

Son: "Dad, we should stop buying things because they cut down trees to make money."

Dad (thinking): "Damn straight. We should stop buying things for that and many, many other reasons."

Dad (saying): "Well, we usually spend money through computers, so we don't use very much paper money. But, you're right, we should not buy as much as we do."

The point is that my six-year-old son is more concerned about the future of his planet that the morons who are ruining it. And, while I usually directly relate childishness with big businesses and their cronies in DC, this time it seems even a child has more forethought. "Go shopping" indeed.

So, now that we allowed eight years of obstructionism by the big energy lobby and short-sightedness by the rest of the Senate during Clinton's administration and eight years of head-in-the-sand myopia by the Bush administration, we've got less than ten years to decrease our CO2 production by 80%. Ten years, and we haven't even begun to agree on its necessity.

"I'm sorry, son. We thought it was more important that people be able to continue shopping like they always have."

I want to end this post on a higher note, so I'm linking to a blogger who is doing her little bit by writing to her congresscritters.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Livestock as Industry: No Way To Make it Work

I've been reading a lot about various global climate change causes and implications recently because I've been asked to talk to a local high school chemistry class about energy and sustainability. Most of what I want to talk about I can't because of time limitations. I'm going to rant here instead.

In looking at dust storm activity in the US Southwest, I came across this paper (PDF).

It discusses the impacts of multi-decadal grazing on soil properties in southeast Utah. Basically, the point is that over-grazing does a few things to the soil:
  1. It destroys the cyanobacteria, lichens, and mosses in the upper part of the soil. This causes loss of nitrogen in the soil. As you all know, nitrogen fixing is necessary for the generation of proteins and DNA, and is therefore necessary for life. When the nitrogen fixing stops, the soil loses its life-sustaining capabilities. Nitrogen levels in the grazed soils vs. the ungrazed soils was 60-70% less.
  2. Carbon, another essential ingredient for life is decreased by 60-70% as well.
  3. The loss of life on these soils allows wind erosion to increase dramatically, which reduces the amount of Mg, Na, P, and Mn by 14-51% (different for the different elements).
  4. Silts are decreased by 38-43%.
Basically, nutrients of all kinds are lost from these grazed lands. It's been 30 years since the last cow was grazed there, and the lands have not recovered; cyanobacteria takes at least 100 years to recover.

What does this mean for climate change? Well, for one, the loss of nutrients to erosion makes the drylands of Utah more sensitive to small variations in moisture variability. What was once considered a dry spell will be a drought. Higher sensitivity to rainfall will also quickly cause decreases in plant life. Plants, bacteria, mosses, lichen, etc. are what keep the nutrients available to...feed life. A decrease in one causes a positive feedback loop that eventually causes a loss of both.

What happens once the plant life is mostly gone? Winds remove the nutrients. You get massive dust storms as seen here. So, what? It's just a little wind, it's not like that has ever hurt anyone.

So what happens is you get this:

Aww... The poor skiiers have to ski on dirty snow. So, what?

Dirty snow is darker snow. Darker snow absorbs more sunlight and melts earlier. Early melting of snow can have many affects, but most importantly, it changes the timing of when meltwater is available to downstream plants and animals. If the plants are not yet ready to receive the water, they'll die off.

Here's a great article on how changing climate and specifically changing of timing in the climate affects creatures in differing ways. Go read it now. I'll wait. Seriously. Go!

Basically, it turns out that some plants and animals time their various activities based on temperature while others time their activities on available sunlight. So, some creatures/plants will peak earlier than they used to while their migratory predators show up late to the party because their sunlight- or other time-based clocks are out of sync with the climate.

Early meltwater running (and necessarily less on-time meltwater) will dramatically affect the creatures that depend on it and the creatures that depend on them, and the creatures that depend on... ad nauseum.

So, can't they just evolve to deal with it? Sure, if they have several tens of thousands of years.

This is the entire problem with human-induced climate change. Things are changing too quickly for most life to adapt. Sure, eventually it'll figure itself out, with likely only a few surviving species and a few new, unrecognizable species, but it's going to be a bleak, bleak place if we don't get our heads out of our asses soon.

2 degrees C of warming is going to push us to the tipping point with no room for error after that; we have less than a decade to figure that out and to do something about it.

What does all of this have to do with livestock? They're unsustainable. The only way eating beef makes sense is if you own 80 or 100 acres of grassland (that's nowhere in the southwest--those are not grasslands, they're drylands.) and have a single cow and calf. Then, it still doesn't make sense to eat the cow when you can get dairy from it. Eating beef from large (in number of head) ranches doesn't make sense at all, whether they're grassfed or cornfed. Grazing livestock (beef) in the way we've been doing for the last 100 years or so is simply not sustainable and it is killing the drylands of the mid- and southwest.

Monday, May 4, 2009

How far can a Dandelion Spore Travel?

When I arrived home from work, my son was raiding the dandelions in the back yard. He was doing what we all did at six: blowing the spores off and making a wish when he cleared the stem. Of course I joined him. After watching the spores float around the yard, he asked me how far can one of them go.

Happily, the intertubes were not too clogged that evening and I managed to find a few research articles on this very subject (yay, Google Scholar!). I have the sneaking suspicion that the scientists who do this work are just looking for excuses to lay on the grass making wishes with their children. Here's a likely manuscript title (Tackenberg et al): "Dandelion Seed Dispersal: The Horizontal Wind Speed Does Not Matter for Long-Distance Dispersal - it is Updraft!" The conclusion in this paper is that for a dandelion seed to go 100 meters or more (long distance by their definition), updraft is the dominant factor. In slight contrast, some (PDF, Stephenson et al.) other (Greene) authors report that the wind speed required to remove similar seeds from the stalk is an important factor. The Stephenson article also considers 100 meters to be a long distance for seeds to travel, so while I suspect that some 4- or 5-sigma seeds can travel into the upper troposphere and thus very long distances it seems that most seeds of this type only travel 100 meters or so.

I had expected that the seeds would make it further than that.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Merck, Elsevier and Dishonesty in Science

The drug giant Merck and the publishing giant Elsevier apparently colluded to defraud the public by publishing a fake journal that only contained "articles" that were summaries of or full "papers" that cast Merck in a positive light.

I don't think there's much that can be said that hasn't already.

I'll be doing my best not to publish in any Elsevier journal from now on; I don't know if I can avoid it (they're everywhere), but...ugh. What disgusting behavior.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Why you Should be Concerned but Should not Panic About A(H1/N1) (Swine Flu).

The western media are at it again, pushing the panic and the apathy buttons all at once.

Here are some informed, well-written, intelligible discussions on what the WHO was calling swine flu and is now calling A(H1/N1):

1) Interview with the US CDC virus chief.
2) Explanation of the WHO's pandemic scale
3) More intelligent discussion of the epidemic
4) Science Insider look at the activity of health agencies around the world

What should you do?

Stop reading or listening to NBC, CBS, CNN, etc. Seriously.

Start reading the posts on the CDC's site:

the WHO's site:

The US government site set up just for this:

Seriously, stop using the major cable and broadcast agencies for news; they're for entertainment, not news.

Here are some reasons for concern:
1) This particular strain has not been seen in humans. Therefore, no humans have built an immunity (although there may be unexpected sources of an immunity in random people). There are many reasons this lack of immunity would not cause every infected person to die.
2) The spread of this virus is faster than we've seen before.
3) In the US, if this does go pandemic (which seems to be the expectation), we don't have the health care infrastructure to handle a lot of sick people all at once.
4) H1N1 has started migrating between humans. If it is or becomes efficient enough in transferring, we may be too far behind the curve to do more than mitigate its effects.
5) Relatively young, healthy people are succumbing to this. Usually only the elderly, the already ill, and the very young die from influenza.
6) The people most likely to get sick (low income workers, part-time workers, and mothers of school-aged children, etc.) are also the least likely to have any paid sick-leave. Therefore, they're the most likely to continue to go to work (and send their children to school) even if they are sick. Guess who is at the very bottom of the paid sick leave service workers.

Here are some reasons for hope:
1) Cleanliness is the best prevention, and cleanliness is easy.
2) The CDC in the US and the WHO and its member states are as aware and on top of this as they can be.
3) Most cases outside of Mexico have been relatively mild. It's not clear why.

Some Dos and Don'ts:
Wash thoroughly; keep clean.
Stay home if you feel sick.
Stock up at least two weeks worth of food and water. Seriously.
Make sure your prescriptions have recently been filled.
Make sure you are stocked on other medications.
Learn how you can help in a public health emergency. Contact your local/county/state health agency if you think you might have anything at all to contribute.

Don't listen to Joe Biden.
Don't panic about pork. If you like pork, cook it well and eat it.
Don't rush out to buy antibacterials. Influenza is a virus, antibacterials won't do anything to stop it.
Don't panic. Prepare.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Are academic institutions out-dated and in need of complete overhall?

A question was raised by this op-ed in the NY-Times. Basically, they question the validity of the current (and well-established) method of educating graduate students and undergraduate students in the US and probably western societies. Right now (generally), graduate students focus so narrowly that they cannot actually find a job after graduation other than with their graduate advisor or someone with whom they've already worked very closely. I've seen many of my graduate student colleagues move into industry, where they can actually find a job, can be paid something reasonable, but do something completely different from their graduate work.

In many ways, that's all fine and dandy.

I was working on a proposal the other day and my supervisor's supervisor told me, "while you're writing this, think about what the community will lose if you aren't funded." Hmm.... Honestly, the scientific community will lose little, and the general community will lose less. The work I do is rather narrowly focused (although it is less narrow than some of my colleagues' work) and not generally applicable to the problems of society as a whole.

While I strongly feel that the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake is a necessary aspect of human nature, I don't feel that what I do will fundamentally alter anyone's life (except my own, my wife's, and my son's---simply because I do contribute some little bit of money for food to this familial experiment).

That's not to say I couldn't contribute more directly to society. For instance, my research requires a pretty strong understanding of energy transfer. If I could find a position that would allow me to apply that understanding to, say, alternative energy applications, I'd jump on it in a heartbeat because my knowledge could be applicable to peoples' daily lives.

And therein's the rub. In the US---and I suspect many other societies---we as a whole, expect knowledge to be instantly applicable to daily life. If that knowledge is not, we denigrate those scientists or engineers who pursue it for its own sake. Even some of the seekers are uncomfortable when there is no obvious short-term benefit from the knowledge. Of course, the long-term benefits of pure research are much greater than is generally imagined, but it's hard to see so far into the future when there are so many short-term problems to solve.

Back to the original question: are our education institutions out-dated and useless?

I don't think they're useless, but I do think there are things that need to be corrected, and I agree with a lot that is said in the article. The changes suggested are drastic but this is definitely something to think about.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Fast-twitch, slow-twitch, dark meat, white meat...

At Easter supper, DF-i-L explained to DS that the dark meat from the turkey he was consuming is from slow-twitch muscles while white-meat is from fast-twitch muscles (or at least that's the way I remember it). DGpJ said he didn't think DF-i-L knew what he was talking about, so I was asked to look it up and settle the controversy.

DF-i-L is correct.


Slow Twitch (Type I)
The slow muscles are more efficient at using oxygen to generate more fuel (known as ATP) for continuous, extended muscle contractions over a long time. They fire more slowly than fast twitch fibers and can go for a long time before they fatigue. Therefore, slow twitch fibers are great at helping athletes run marathons and bicycle for hours.

Fast Twitch (Type II)
Because fast twitch fibers use anaerobic metabolism to create fuel, they are much better at generating short bursts of strength or speed than slow muscles. However, they fatigue more quickly. Fast twitch fibers generally produce the same amount of force per contraction as slow muscles, but they get their name because they are able to fire more rapidly. Having more fast twitch fibers can be an asset to a sprinter since she needs to quickly generate a lot of force.

A turkey or chicken stands on its legs all the time but doesn't do much more than that. It needs slow, endurance-trained, efficient muscles in its legs. The dark meat in the legs contains lots of blood vessels that the muscles need for near-continuous operation.

The white meat (breasts in a turkey, for example) muscles require quick bursts of activity, but not much in the way of the oxygen-carrying myoglobin necessary for long-term usage.

By the way, flying birds (dove, pigeon, wild geese, etc.) have dark meat in pretty much all of their bodies. If you like the white meat of fowl, you'll have to look for chicken, turkey, pheasant, etc. If you like dark meat from fowl, you'll find leaner meats in geese (not domesticated; avoid the skin where all the fat is stored), duck (not domesticated; avoid the skin where all the fat is stored), or other migratory game bird.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bloody morning


It's ~1 AM and this instant-alert sounds through the house. (Better than a fire alarm, I assure you.)

Last night was her turn, it's my turn now.


I'm there, shuffling the boy into the bathroom where the floor can be cleaned, the light can be lit, and the tissue paper can be had. Yep, he has a bloody nose.

After calming the panic, the solution is easy. Pinch the nose, cool and contract the blood vessels with wet tissue paper. And more calming. Calming is the most important.

"What causes a bloody nose?"

Oh, boy. We'll look it up tomorrow. Sometimes it's because you haven't had enough water, sometimes it's because you're picking your nose too much, sometimes it's because you rub your nose too much, sometimes it just happens.

Calmed, cleaned, and shirt changed. Time to go back to bed.

I wonder if I can ever make those deep breathing exercises actually put me to sleep....


It's 3:30 AM. He is much more calm about it this time. Calm, pinch, wet, calm, clean, back to bed. We'll look it up tomorrow.

"What if the government people who make the computers didn't know what causes bloody noses when they made the computers?"

Oh, boy. So many things to clarify. Not enough sleep. Explain a little about the internet to a 6-year-old at 3:30 AM after two bloody noses and too little sleep.

7:00 AM. We only have 38 minutes to get dressed, make breakfast, and get to the bus stop. For any normal human, this is entirely possible with extra time to read the morning news and maybe even comment on someone's blog. For a super-inquisitive, overly-tired, 6-year-old, it's barely enough time to change into clothing. For a twice-waked 32-year-old grouch, it's barely enough time to get out of bed. I did get my caffeine made without doing anything too stupid, which means I've accomplished a fair amount and may take the rest of the day off.

Enough with the theatrics. Why the bloody noses?
  1. Dry air causes the membranes in the nose to dry out and crack. The blood vessels are right at the surface, so they too dry out and crack.
  2. Picking or excessive rubbing the nose, especially when dry, will cause the blood vessels to burst.
  3. High altitude
  4. Other issues related to actual medical problems.
  5. Injury
Our dear boy has some very-near-to-the-surface blood vessels, so he is especially susceptible to #s 1 and 2 above. I suspect #2 (rubbing) for last night's fun.

How to stop a bloody nose? If it's just a one-time (or occasional) bloody nose that isn't due to injury, nothing more than keeping the nose elevated above the heart, cooling and compressing the ruptured blood vessels (to encourage clotting), and, probably most importantly, staying calm is required.

Do not tilt the head back, as this will allow the blood to flow into the sinuses, into the airway, and down the throat; none of those are places blood should be. Do not tilt the head too far forward, as this will allow more blood to flow, discouraging clotting. Do NOT lower the head below the level of the heart, as gravity will work against instead of with you and allow even more blood to flow, keeping the blood vessels warm and the coagulation from happening.

Literally and figuratively, keep a level head, and compress and cool those blood vessels.

If more than the occasional bloody nose is experienced, there are some home remedies that may or may not work. As a child, we used goldenseal for all kinds of clotting needs. Some people use (by imbibing or by topical application) chili pepper to open up their sinuses, relieving excess pressure. Just avoid excessive response; a little bit of something will help, but too much may cause other irritations or worsen the problem.

If nose bleeds are a regular part of your life, it may be a good idea to speak with your doctor about the problem.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Compact Fluorescent Lights: Bad for the environment or just more posturing by boneheads?

I'm sure you can guess the answer from the title of this post, but I should still go through the motions. :)

I saw this article today, which argues that CFLs are not as good for energy consumption as advertised due to the way certain components within the bulb affect the actual power draw vs the observed power draw. In short, CFLs take a little less than 100% more energy than claimed because of the way the electronics are built. This is mostly true (I haven't checked the actual values, just the basic physics/electronics), but you won't see the cost; it's a loss to the power company.

Does this mean the CFLs are another "greenwashing" for all us gullible fools out there who don't know anything and just glom onto whatever feel-good behavior is the fad-of-the-hour?

We can use math to answer this question.

Let's take the example of a 100 watt incandescent bulb most of you probably have in your house somewhere. I can easily find a 23 W CFL that outputs as much light as a 100 W incandescent. The CFL costs $2.00 per bulb, while the incan costs $0.28. The CFL is rated to last 8,000 hours. The incan is rated to last 1950 hours.

Assuming typical usage of 3 hours/day, we can expect the CFL to last 7.3 years and the incan to last 1.78 years. The difference in rated hours means the cost of replacing those incans would add up to $1.15 over the life of the CFL.

Let's go back to that article and assume the actual power usage of the CFL is 46 W instead of 23 as advertised. 46 W *8000 hours = 368000 Wh over the lifetime of the bulb. That's 368 kWh. For the incans, the usage would be 100 W * 8000 hours (assume we instantly replace the incan after it burns out and use the next ones until we reach 8000 hours of use) = 800000 Wh, 800 kWh.

The average cost of electricity in the US is about $0.11/kWh. The lifetime cost of the electricty (of which you'll only see ~50%) CFL is $40.48, giving a total cost of $42.48 (except your cost is only $22.24 because the extra power is dissipated in the power lines). The incan electricity cost is $88.00 (you'll see all of this cost), giving a total cost of $89.15.

Okay, great, so a CFL still uses less energy and the problem with the power can be fixed with a couple of additional electronics---if you're handy with a soldering iron, you could do this yourself.

What about the mercury problem you've heard so much about recently?

Well, a first generation CFL has about 4 mg of mercury, none of which is released to the environment if the bulb is not broken. For comparison, old thermometers contain about 500 mg of mercury. Newer CFLs have 1.4 to 2.5 mg of mercury per bulb. Incandescents have none.

Does this mean we should stop allowing CFLs because of the mercury problem?

No. Once again, some simple math can answer the problem.

First, as the CFL is used, the mercury vapor becomes chemically bound to the glass, leaving only about 14% to be released, assuming breakage, at the end of the life of the bulb. The EPA (this links to a PDF) estimates that if all 290 million CFLs sold in 2007 were destroyed in a landfill (each one broken), they would add about 0.16 metric tons of mercury to the environment. That's 0.16 per cent of the mercury released by humans.

Electricity generation is the main source of mercury emissions in the US. The average mercury emissions from electricity generation in the US is 0.012 mg/kWh. The CFL above would, if broken and assuming 4 mg of mercury in the original bulb, add about 0.012*368+0.14*4 = 4.98 mg mercury. The incandescent bulbs would produce 0.012*800 = 9.6 mg mercury. Here, the total electricity use of the CFL should be used, rather than the 23 Watts advertised.

CFL (26 W)Incan (100W)
Hg (mg)4.989.6
Electricity (kWh)368800
Cost ($)42.48 (or $22.24 if we only count your costs)89.15
Lifetime (hours)80001950

There's absolutely no reason not to go to CFL. Also, many places are recycling the CFLs for free now, which takes care of the "mercury problem" as well. The bright (ha!) ones among you will notice that even if you broke the CFL right after you bought it (using zero electricity), you won't reach the amount of mercury released due to electricity generation needed to run the incandescent bulb for 8000 hours. Even if you were a moron and bought two CFLs, broke one and used the other, you'd still release less mercury.

Note that I have not discussed the energy costs in producing the bulbs. I don't know those numbers and don't feel like looking them up right now. I am sure it takes more energy to make the CFLs right now, but am NOT sure that extra energy cost is enough to make up the difference in energy or mercury costs compared with the incandescent bulbs.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Raindrops falling on my windshield

Son (in the car, watching the raindrops roll up our windshield as we travel on the freeway):

"Why do the rain drops roll up the windshield instead of down?"


Because of the 70 miles per hour winds blowing over the windshield put more upward force on the drops than gravity does.

We can calculate the force this fluid (air) has of the object on the windshield (raindrop). I'm not going to bother doing the calculation right now, but it can be done. We can also calculate the down-ward force applied by the acceleration due to gravity.

The force applied to the rain drop by the wind moving past is larger than the force applied by the acceleration of gravity on the mass of the rain drop. Therefore, the raindrop moves in the direction the wind-force is being applied (there may be other forces, but the are so minor that I'm going to ignore them).

Son's follow-up: "Why do some raindrops go further up than others?"

Because some are larger than others (and therefore catch more wind and do not dry out as quickly), some find a cleaner path than others, some have more wind-force applied to them because of their position on the windshield (not blocked by the wipers, for example).

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Why is the speed of light what it is?

Question from Son: Why isn't the speed of light different from what it is? Why isn't it faster or slower?

Hmm... Good question.

First, let's get something straight. The "speed of light" almost invariably refers to the speed of light in a vacuum. The speed of light through glass is different from that through a vacuum, and it's different through water (et cetera, et cetera, et cetera). The speed of light is dependent on the medium through which it passes. In general, a vacuum is the medium we're speaking of when we talk about "the speed of light."

Then let's first talk about the speed of light in a vacuum. That speed is approximately 300,000,000 meters per second. Here's the NIST definition (by way of the definition of the meter):

The metre is the length of the path traveled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second.

Okay. That's close enough to 300,000,000 m/s for right now.

But, WHY?

Some of the brightest minds in physics have been asking this question for as long as the speed of light has been known.

Paul Dirac had a theory called "Large numbers hypothesis", which noticed that some very large numbers in physics were similar in magnitude. There's no reasoning behind his theory besides arguing that because they're both very large and have a similar scale, they must be related. In particular, he argued that the strength of gravity decreases as the age of the universe increases. There's no observational evidence for this, and most physicists consider the LNH to be numerology rather than physics.

There has been some speculation that the mass of a photon (the particle that makes up light) is not zero. A massive photon could allow variability in the speed of light; the speed of light would vary depending on its wavelength (color). Some studies have reported that the rest mass of a real photon is less than 10^-63 kg. That's pretty close to massless.

Again, this doesn't seem to answer the questions: Is the speed of light constant and why does the speed of light have the value it has.

First, a rest mass of zero does limit the speed of light to being constant, in our current paradigm. In the well-tested theory of Relativity, the speed of light is required to be constant.0

Second, a massless photon does not tell us WHY the value of c is 300,000,000 m/s, just that the speed doesn't vary.

So, WHY is it 300,000,000 m/s? Well, for one, because that's how a meter is defined. ;)

That's a lame answer, but it might help to understand that maybe we should move to a more fundamental unit. (here's a hint: Unfortunately, at some point in this discussion, we may just throw up our hands and say, "because that's the way it is and we don't know why, yet.")

According to quantum physics, there's a smallest size anything can be. This size is called the planck length and is about 1.6x10^-35 meters or about 10^20 times as small as the diameter of a proton. Quantum physics claims that there is nothing that is smaller.

There is another fundamental unit called the planck time, which is the time it takes for a photon traveling at the speed of light to travel the distance of the planck length. This is about 10^-43 seconds. There is no smaller unit of time. Now, if you pay attention to the units here (time and length), you'll notice that the speed of light (length/time) is fundamental to the definition of space-time (length and time). That is, the maximum rate at which information can travel (speed of light) through a medium is fundamentally dependent on the minimum size of the medium through which it is traveling (space-time).

So, why 299,792,458 m/s ?

Well, because our every-day units are in no way directly related to the quantum size of the universe. They need to be something we can understand in our day-to-day lives.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Why Science kicks ass: Observation, Theory, Prediction, Verification

Some 300 years ago, Kepler and Tycho Brahe made some observations of planetary motion. Kepler came up with the three laws of planetary motion:

  1. The orbit of every planet is an ellipse with the sun at a focus
  2. A line joining the planet and the sun sweeps out equal areas during equal intervals of time
  3. The square of the orbital period of a planet is directly proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit

These three laws were consistent with the Copernican idea that the Earth is not the center of the universe and earned Kepler a lot of scorn from the various Churches. 100 years or so later, Newton was able to derive Kepler's laws from his own, more fundamental laws of motion:

  1. There exists a set of inertial reference frames relative to which all particles with no net force acting on them will move without change to their velocity. That is, a body in motion stays in motion and a body at rest stays at rest if no external force acts on the body.
  2. Observed from an inertial reference frame, the net force on a particle of constant mass is proportional to the time rate of change of its linear momentum. That is, force is mass times acceleration. The net force acting on a body is the body's mass multiplied by its acceleration.
  3. Whenever a body, A exerts a force on another body, B, B simultaneously exerts a force on A with the same magnitude in the opposite direction. These two forces act along the same line. That is, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Those three laws of motion can be combined with Newton's law of universal gravitation:
  1. Every point mass attracts every other point mass by a force pointing along the line intersecting both points. The force is proportional to the product of the two masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the point masses:
  • F = G m1*m2/r^2

Together, you can derive Kepler's three laws of planetary motion (until you get too precise and then you need General Relativity). I won't bore you with any more details by doing so.

What you can also derive is the motion of any object passing by the Earth, for example.

Way back in October, a near-earth asteroid a few meters across with a trajectory very likely to bring it into contact with the Earth was detected. Very shortly after the detection, observers realized that the object would hit the earth, and the knowledge of physics allowed the observers to predict that it would impact somewhere over Sudan. The prediction was that it would break up in the atmosphere.

It did. The atmospheric impact was detected and the energy release was measured.

Pieces of that asteroid-turned-meteor-turned-meteorite have been recovered.

I posted a blurb where I did the math to estimate the density, and therefore the properties of the asteroid. Let's see if I was right... :)

Before we do that, I just want to point out how wonderfully strong science is in doing what it's meant to do: explain how things in our universe work.

The typical scientific method is something like this:

We make some observations: Planetary motion observed by Brahe and Kepler.
We make a prediction: Kepler's laws of planetary motion and Newton's laws of motion.
We test that prediction: Discover new planets by observing their gravitational influence on the known planets, and then accurately predicting the new planets' orbits and looking in the right place.
We make adjustments to the prediction based on new data: Mercury's orbit, light curves, Einstein's General Relativity.
We repeat.

Observation: There is a rock out there that has a certain trajectory.
Prediction: this rock will impact Earth's atmosphere somewhere over Sudan.
Test: We observed that rock impacted Earth's atmosphere somewhere over Sudan.

And yet again:
Observation: The energy released was about 4*10^12 joules.
Prediction: The asteroid would have a density of 1800 kg/m^3.
Prediction: The asteroid was mostly rock and emptiness between the rocks.
Test: Pick up pieces of the rocks that fell to Earth and measure density.

Well, here's the paper discussing the work of the meteorite hunters.

They reported a density of between 2100 and 2500 kg/m^3. That's higher than my prediction, but the energy released from the air blast has been updated to be about 6.7*10^12 joules, the asteroid diameter was increased to be about 4.1 m in diameter instead of the 3 meters I used, and the least dense parts of the rock burned up in the atmosphere while the most dense survived.

Here are some pictures. Much of what you see is the ablation crust, but you can also see into the interior of the rock in (d). It's not solid throughout. In fact, the measured porosity is on the order of 10% to 25%. A rubble pile. The recovered bits only account for about 0.005% of the initial mass of the impactor (the rest burned up in the atmosphere).

This is the first time the meteorites from an object first seen in space have been recovered. This is a big deal because usually we have to rely on reflected light to tell us about the rocks in space. That is fraught with problems and having a rock on the earth that came from a known object in space is going to help immensely.

It is also fortunate that we detected the asteroid and made the prediction of where it would explode in the atmosphere; the kind of material this is made of does not survive the weather on the Earth for very long and we have never found this kind of meteorite on the ground.

The authors of the recovery paper have backtraced the orbit of the object and have found a likely candidate asteroid for the source of this rock.