God and Science

img_0352.jpgThroughout my life, I’ve engaged in considerable thought about God. Admittedly, more thought than careful study. I have no formal theological preparation, unless you count 72 years as a baptized and confirmed, fairly regular church-attending member of several Episcopal Churches, having taught Sunday school and serving as senior warden of the vestry.   With due humility, I don’t consider this life experience to be a formal preparation for any learned discussion of religion. I am no religious scholar, not even close.

Like many of my friends and family, I do delight in certain passages in the Bible, but if asked to quote them, I’d struggle to paraphrase, having never made much of an effort to commit them to memory. My offerings would spring from at least three different translations of the Good Book mixed with my own unencumbered interpretation. For this reason, I usually avoid quoting scripture.

In the Old Testament, I marvel at the wisdom in the Proverbs and the Psalms. Having been raised in a Christian home, the teachings of Jesus Christ provide an essential framework for my own faith and for my life. Here is my favorite lesson carefully copied word for word from the King James Version.

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.  Matthew 22:37-40.

It doesn’t matter what religion claims your allegiance, or if you don’t belong to any. It doesn’t even matter if you are an atheist who devoutly denies the existence of any divinity. This beautiful sentiment, expressing an infinite love and trust in a greater good combined with a deeply felt respect and love for every human being, including yourself, represents an inspired teaching we should all strive to follow. It further directs us to use all of our heart, soul, and mind. In other words to embrace new understanding, new knowledge, new discoveries, and greater wisdom.

Another favorite passage is also from Matthew as written in the King James Version.

Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16.

We are told to let our light shine, in other words to seek greater wisdom and use it. Wisdom comes from greater knowledge and good works usually result from such enlightenment.   I interpret this passage as our license to seek to understand the natural universe and to teach others what we have learned. I see this passage as divine authority for science and for lifelong learning. These passages are directing us, all of us regardless of our religious faith or tradition, to seek greater understanding of our natural universe, our humanity, our history, our technology, and even our ability to learn.  I believe that God intends us to learn as we live our lives, and to pass on what we learn to succeeding generations.  In this manner, humanity grows more enlightened and more prosperous.

My formal education focused on the sciences, although I would never consider myself a scientist. I am an educator, although now retired from that profession. Perhaps this website is proof that I’m still engaged in teaching and learning. My feathers ruffle whenever I detect unchallenged ignorance, especially when it is used maliciously or dishonestly. I’m profoundly embarrassed when I see it in a mirror, figuratively.

My love of God grows stronger, the more I learn about life and the cosmos. Early in my studies, I realized there was no end to knowledge. No matter how much we know, we are no closer to knowing everything. In truth, that false objective moves further away with each epiphany. Knowledge of our natural universe is an infinite realm, but with no restriction to its access but our curiosity and our imagination.

There is no conflict between God and science. God gives us free-will. With that comes inspiration and joy but also great dangers and even death. It is this gift of wisdom that helps us pursue the former and the courage to face the latter. We should never fear learning wherever our curiosity and our responsibilities lead us. Science is just one human endeavor that helps us better understand our existence. It is using all of our minds to allow our light to shine wherever it may enlighten us or others in our lives.

Those who attempt to use the methods of science or the knowledge gained from its practice to prove or even to disprove the existence of God are making a serious mistake. They place science above God. Natural laws appear to govern our physical reality, but where do they come from? What is beyond our universe? We have no idea! Our laws of nature and the universe do not apply in such a realm. Even such cosmological notions as the Big Bang prove this point. Our two great scientific frameworks come into irreconcilable conflict as this idea is conceived. In fact, time itself fails to exist at the instant we describe as the Big Bang. To ask what comes before it, is to ask what comes before time itself, a meaningless question.

What if God is life? What if God is Love? What if God is the perfect good? Or all of these and more? These questions exist in our minds, but they are not answered by scientific exploration. What if God is present in all times and in all places? Again, such an idea is beyond our comprehension, for we are not present in all times and in all places. I’m not saying that science should not try to understand life, love, and a perfect good, but Science is not capable of finding God by its limited methods. God’s realm is beyond the experience of mere mortals and of their science.

Truly religious people should not fear science, although they should remain wary of scientists who believe they are greater than God. And all of us should be equally concerned about religious people who refuse to learn or accept new knowledge, for they are not obeying the commandments of the God they say they love and trust.

As Americans, we believe we are endowed by our creator with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In my opinion, happiness is most enjoyed when we are learning, and when we are free to learn. This includes our pursuit of greater scientific understanding of our natural universe. Thank God for science and for our ability to comprehend its glorious discoveries.

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Dr. Ben Carson is the Actual Winner of Recent Quinnipiac Poll

Earlier this week, Quinnipiac University released its latest poll of the Republicans seeking the nomination for President of the United States. There are many ways to look at this or any poll, but this one was interesting because of a second question in the survey that asked who would definitely not be supported. Donald Trump was the winner in the first question but the biggest loser in the second. In other words, he enjoys the most support as the favorite candidate, but also carries the most baggage as the candidate who is least likely to be supported as the nominee.

Unfortunately, this seemingly paradoxical result merited little comment from the various political analysts who weighed in on this most recent national poll. Looking at the numbers in another way, you arrive at the conclusion that Dr. Ben Carson is actually the most preferred candidate in the field with the least baggage at this early stage of the election.

The media generally focused on the percent of those polled who preferred each candidate. Donald Trump easily led with 28 percent, followed by Dr. Ben Carson with 12 percent, followed by Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio rounding out the top five with 7 percent each. But Donald Trump also led with 26 percent saying they would definitely not support him as the nominee of the party. In other words, only 74 percent would support him. By contrast, all the other candidates were more acceptable with Dr. Carson enjoying the support of 95 percent of those who responded to this question.

I decided to look at the poll results in three ways. How does each candidate rank as the first choice? How does each candidate rank on the support question? How does each candidate rank when the percentages of preference and support are combined?

By combining the results of these three questions, I developed a Support Preference Index (SPI) which is a measure of how close a candidate is to being ranked first using all three calculations.  The top five candidates (rankings in parentheses) using this analysis are:

  1. Dr. Ben Carson (2, 1, 1)
  2. Mr. Marco Rubio (4, 3, 3)
  3. Mr. Scott Walker (6, 3, 5)
  4. Mr. Ted Cruz (4, 6, 5)
  5. Ms. Carly Fiorina (7, 3, 6)

SPI

As stated, there are many ways to manipulate numbers, but if you are interested in who enjoys the most support and has the least baggage among the seventeen candidates, this is one way of answering the question.  Its early in the nomination process.  I wonder how this will change over the next year.

Update 8/28/2015:

Here is the spreadsheet to show the calculations used in this analysis.

Spreadsheet - Poll Rankings Combined - 20150828

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Pink, White, Blue, Green, Yellow, or Nada? (updated 8/20/2015)

Over the course of the last several years, I’ve been conducting a study of human preferences.  Admittedly, it’s a work in progress, and I’m careful not to describe it as a scientific investigation.  Indeed, it’s just an observational exercise, but I am ready to offer a hypothesis.

There are exactly seven kinds of Homo sapiens extant in the USA.  They may be labeled as Pinks, Greens, Yellows, Whites, Blues, Nones, and Anys. The distribution of these different members of our species is not uniform.  There are regional, gender, age, political, and even religious factors that contribute to the behaviors that determine the exclusive membership in each group.

The distinctive behaviors can be observed around mealtimes, in homes and in restaurants. It can also be observed during shopping episodes in grocery stores, convenience stores, and other places where we might choose to satisfy our sweet tooth.  Yes, I’m talking about how or if we choose to add something that tastes sweet to our food or drink.

What are you?  And more importantly, why?  That is the focus of my study.  Please leave a comment describing your preference and the reasons for it.  In a future essay I will share the results of my investigation.

Update: 8/20/2015

My research has come to a satisfactory conclusion.  These are the important findings.

  1. Sugar and its various substitutes are safe to eat in moderation for most people.
  2. Each of us is unique, and our diets should reflect our individual differences, tolerances, and preferences.
  3. Our preferences for food, and sweeteners, are often derived from magical or superstitious notions, and rarely from the sciences of nutrition and human physiology.

If you wish to read a brief but unbiased summary of the various sugar substitutes, I suggest FamilyDoctor.org, but even Wikipedia has some good information.

The reasons people give for choosing the pink, blue, green, white, yellow, or no packages to make their coffee or tea sweet are all over the map.  Some use what their friends use.  Some are influenced by advertising, negative or positive.  Many are influenced by news reports of various studies, as well as various FaceBook postings favoring one over another.  Quite a few base their choice on taste.

My obsession about the reasons we choose different sweeteners started when my wife and I went shopping in a Target store while traveling in California.  We were staying in a nice resort north of San Diego on the coast and our suite included a nice kitchen, and most important of all, a coffee maker.  We drink coffee in the morning and we needed to purchase the makings for our perfect brew.  For me, that requires blue packages of Equal or one of the other brands with aspartame as the sugar substitute.  To my amazement, that California Target did not stock any sweetener with aspartame.  Every other sugar substitute on the market was present, Splenda, Stevia, Sweet & Low, and of course sugar.  I asked a store employee and was told no one would buy it, so they stopped offering it.  Back home it’s one of the most common sweeteners.

My formal education was in the sciences.  Early in my career I taught several different college level general and organic chemistry courses, as well as other related disciplines. I studied biochemistry and human physiology in my graduate studies. Several of those courses were in the College of Medicine, although I was a graduate student not a medical student.  Since completing my formal education, I continue to study in these areas of the sciences even after I left the classroom.  I share this to illustrate that I know something about the ingredients of the various things we eat, and how they are metabolized.

Competition is brutal among the various companies that market sugar and its sweet substitutes.  Advertising is rarely encumbered by the facts.  It is impossible to make a wise decision about how to sweeten your tea or choose a sweet beverage to drink, if you rely upon advertising, posts shared on Facebook, and peer pressure.  Apparently in Southern California, if you want to add Equal to your iced tea, you have to order it from Amazon, have it shipped in a non-descript package, and hide it from your friends.

Because I know what sugar and its sweet substitutes are and how they are metabolized, I’m fascinated by the different notions that people have about each of them.  Again, I must stress they are all safe for most people, but each of us is unique.  Allow me to describe each one starting with sugar.

Table Sugar (White) is actually sucrose.  It is a disaccharide which means it is composed of two monosaccharides or simple sugars, glucose and fructose. Glucose is perhaps the most common organic molecular species found in nature.  Starch and cellulose are comprised of glucose which is also known as dextrose. It is our fuel, our energy source. Many of the things we eat are converted to glucose for use by our muscles or stored as glycogen (short term) or fat (longer term) for future use. We cannot live without glucose.

Fructose, is the other monosaccharide in table sugar. It is not readily converted to glucose in the liver.  If we eat too much sugar, most of us are unable to convert much of the fructose to glucose, and it is instead converted to liver fat, as well as fatty tissue in other organs such as the brain, kidneys, etc.  Some people are fortunate to be able to handle the conversion better than others, and this is certainly related to lifestyle, age, and genetics.   Fatty deposits in the liver and in other organs may lead to conditions such as fatty liver disease, metabolic syndrome, and others pathological conditions including Type II Diabetes.  Until modern times, most human diets contained very little fructose, except in fibrous fruits and some vegetables where the absorption of fructose into the blood stream was slow and limited.  Recent studies indicate that high concentrations of fructose in the bloodstream may cause an inflammatory response in arterial walls, as well as cardiac and other vascular tissue rendering them sticky to lipoproteins and other molecules  transported in the blood.  For most of us, sugar should be eaten in moderation and best eaten in fruits not from little white packages.

Sucralose (Splenda – Yellow) is a derivative of sucrose made by substituting chlorine atoms for hydroxyl groups on the disaccharide molecule.  The result is a substance which is as much as 700 times sweeter than sucrose, meaning that very little is ingested when it is used to sweeten beverages or other foods.  It passes through the digestive system without entering the bloodstream and therefore does not provide energy.  It is a zero calorie synthetic sugar substitute.  It is useful in food preparation because it does not break down when it is cooked retaining its sweetness.  Recent studies raise questions about the effect that sucralose might have on the intestinal micro biome (gut bacteria). Since it is a relatively stable chlorinated hydrocarbon derivative, there are also concerns about its persistence in the environment and in sewage treatment.  Fortunately, due to its extreme sweetness very little is actually ingested or subsequently delivered into the biosphere.  The FDA suggests limiting the daily ingestion of sucralose to not more than 9 mg/kg of body mass. More studies are needed about this sweetener usually offered in yellow packages.

Saccharin (Sweet & Low – Pink) has been used as a synthetic sugar substitute for a very long time, over a hundred years.  It was discovered in 1879 and has been approved as a food additive since 1912 without any known adverse effects. The less formal chemical name is benzoic sulfimide, and it may be about 400 times sweeter than table sugar but this varies depending upon its formulation.  It’s safety as a sugar substitute has been demonstrated over a long period of use, but recent studies also call into question its impact on the bacterial environment of the gut.  It has an unpleasant metallic or bitter aftertaste which is why it is often mixed with glucose and other sweeteners to mask the effect. The official Acceptable Daily Intake of Saccharin is 5 mg/kg of body mass.

Stevia (Green) is a mixture of steviol glycoside compounds extracted from plants of the species Stevia rebaudiana. This sweetener has been in common use in Japan for many years.  Certain of the glycosides received approval in the United States in 2008 and Europe in 2011, and are sold as Truvia by Cargill and Coca Cola, and PureVia by PepsiCo.  The plant extract was originally banned in the Unted States in the early 1990’s because of carcinogenic fears later alleviated through testing and subsequent restrictions to specific glycosides present in the plant extract.  Stevia sweetener is a non-caloric additive because it passes through the digestive system and into the intestine where it is metabolized by bacteria without the glucose or steviol entering the blood stream.  The micro biome of the gut is definitely affected, but apparently without adverse effects. The green package and marketing as a “natural” sweetener have helped promote its use, but the FDA approval is limited to daily ingestion of 4 mg/kg of body mass because of concerns about its safety, less than half the recommended limit for sucralose and the lowest recommended daily intake of all.  Certainly, not all “natural” plant extracts are safe, in fact some are deadly, and green is just one of the colors of the rainbow.

Aspartame (Equal – Blue) is the methyl ester of a dipeptide of the naturally occurring amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine, and therefore, the only sugar substitute with an entirely natural composition. Virtually all proteins contain these two amino acids and they are present in most cells in our bodies.  Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid, meaning it is one of the eight that must be included in our diets because we lack the biochemical pathways to make them ourselves. Aspartic acid is among the most common amino acids in natural proteins.  It is just about impossible for a human to avoid eating foods with protein containing aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and the methyl ester functional group in quantities much larger than when ingesting aspartame as a sugar substitute.  It is about 200 times as sweet as sugar, and the official Acceptable Daily Intake is 50 mg/kg of body mass, or at least ten times safer than other sugar substitutes and sugar itself.  When ingested, it is hydrolyzed to the two naturally occurring amino acids which are absorbed into the blood stream as are other amino acids from the digestion of protein.  These metabolites are then available for various metabolic pathways involving the amino acids such as the making of proteins and enzymes essential for our health.  Like the other sugar substitutes mentioned above, aspartame is very much sweeter than sugar, and that is why it has almost no calories.  The amount present in a blue package of Equal is so small that it is almost not visible.  Most of what you see in that blue package is glucose and a starch derivative added for packaging purposes only.  The downside of aspartame is its relatively short shelf-life.  If you heat it, it breaks down to the two amino acids which have no sweet taste.  This also happens over time which explains the expiration dates on containers of foods and drinks sweetened with aspartame.

There is a warning label on all foods and beverages that include aspartame.  The warning is related to the essential amino acid phenylalanine.  Individuals with the extremely rare genetic condition known as PKU Syndrome must follow special diets that restrict the intake of this amino acid because of the absence of an enzyme that metabolizes phenylalanine.  Too much phenylalanine in the diets of these people can lead to the toxic buildup of phenylalanine and a reduction in the amount of the essential amino acid tyrosine with harmful consequences.  All babies born in the USA and most developed countries are tested for PKU at birth.  Only 1 in 12,000 infants test positive for PKU.

Aspartame has been the victim of numerous internet hoaxes.  It is one of the most studied food additives by the FDA, and no harmful effects have ever been shown in legitimate scientific research.  This is really not surprising when you know what it is. Aspartic acid and phenylalanine are already in our diets in the proteins we eat, and so is the methyl ester functional group (one glass of wine or beer contains far more than a twelve pack of diet soda).

Other sugar substitutes such as the sugar alcohols and acesulfame are also used alone and in combination with the above to sweeten our foods and beverages. Again, they are generally safe in moderation.  Acesulfame, also known as Ace-K, is usually found in combination with saccharin and other sweeteners to mask the aftertaste. The recommended daily intake is 15 mg/kg of body mass.

Sugar alcohols are not sugars, thereby adding to our confusion. A sugar is defined as a poly-hydroxyl aldehyde or ketone, and since sugar alcohols lack the aldehyde or ketone functional group, they don’t have to be listed as sugars on the label. It is a marketing game. These substances are not zero calorie sweeteners.  Additionally, the bacteria in our guts metabolize them causing some gas and other discomforts in people who eat foods containing large quantities, especially sugar-free candies and cookies among others.

Conclusion: Whether you choose pink, yellow, white, blue, or green packages to sweeten your beverages, you are generally safe if used in moderation.  Beware of packaging and labeling, natural doesn’t always mean natural, and sugar free doesn’t always mean low calorie.  Green and yellow are not necessarily good for you or the environment.  Just because your grandmother only used white packages doesn’t mean you should.  If you live in California, you might have to hunt for blue, because Donald Rumsfeld once served as CEO of S.B Searle and Company.

By every measure and scientific study, aspartame is the safest and nutritionally best for you to use to sweeten your food or drink.  For most of us who aren’t 16 year old athletes, sugar is probably the least healthy.  But again, we are each unique, and of these sweeteners are  safe in moderation.

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Abortion (Updated 8/17/2015)

Planned Parenthood is in the news.  I’ve heard of Planned Parenthood, but no one in my circle of family and friends ever sought their services, as far as I know.  The recent videos showing physicians associated with Planned Parenthood discussing the harvesting of fetal tissue while enjoying a nice lunch, certainly challenges our sensibilities.

I’ve never known anyone who had an abortion, but it is possible that I’ve not known that someone had one. My mother had a miscarriage sometime before I was conceived. As a consequence of that family tragedy and heartbreak, I enjoy my life instead of that other person.

A miscarriage and an abortion are two different things.  In this context, an abortion occurs when a living human being is purposely taken from its mother’s womb prematurely for the primary purpose of ending its life. In my opinion, that is terribly wrong and should never happen, no exceptions.  It is taking the life of a defenseless human being.

Life can be short, and it is terribly heart rendering when a brief life ends abruptly. Everyone dies eventually, but life goes on. According to news sources, abortions end the lives of tens of millions of individuals. Far more lives are lost through this practice than in wars, famines, plagues, or just about any other imaginable occurrence. Consider a holocaust occurring every year.  Consider that a sizeable number of us think this is acceptable, even necessary, people associated with Planned Parenthood for example.

I don’t understand the “pro-choice” canard.  Since when does one human being get to choose when another human being is going to die?  Sorry, but pro-choice sounds good but makes no rational sense. It’s pro-abortion wrapped in a nice sounding term. We do that often. We choose a euphemism to color the truth. In this case describing a pro-abortion stance as if it were pro-choice is like calling a rape just another type of love-making. A women may choose many things, but neither a women nor a man has a right to take another person’s life, unless it is in self-defense.

During sexual intercourse, millions of living beings (spermatozoa and sometimes an ovum or two) come to the end of their lives. But this is the way of life. The normal life span of a sperm is quite short, a matter of hours or days, ova normally live much longer. A sperm lives to search out an egg to fertilize, thus ending its life in the creation of a unique living human being. Very few fulfill their mission. The same can be said for an ovum. We don’t choose which sperm or ovum creates a new zygote possessing the potential to mature through birth and beyond. A man doesn’t have the right nor the means to choose, nor does a woman.

A zygote, an embryo, a fetus, and an infant are early stages in the development of a human life. Allowing mothers and their physicians to choose to end such a life for reasons of convenience or other equally unconvincing rationalizations, is not worthy of an enlightened civilization. Call it fate or God’s will, but we do not choose which life begins, nor should we decide to end that life. That human being, once created, has a right to live.

UPDATE:  What is science?  What is policy?  What is policy that reflects scientific understanding?  Lately, several of those seeking the office of President of the United States, as well as many commentators, have weighed in on these issues of life, when it begins and ends.

in my opinion, policies should reflect our understanding of science, even as we admit that what we know today might be deemed wrong tomorrow.  Such is the nature of scientific knowledge.

We know that life is continuous, and it cycles through recognizable stages.  A sperm is a living cell.  So is an unfertilized egg, as is one that has been fertilized becoming what is known as a zygote.  This is our scientific understanding. These single celled organisms are part of the human life cycle, just as analogous cells describe stages in the life cycles of all animals.

Life doesn’t begin at conception, it continues with the creation of a new unique individual enjoying the potential to participate as a member of human society.

As defined earlier in this essay, abortion is legal.  In other words, our society accepts an established policy allowing the termination of life before it is born.  No matter how it may be justified or argued does not change our understanding of the science. An abortion is the purposeful termination of a human life.  The policy discussion should focus on when we as a society should allow that to occur.

If I were the arbiter of this policy debate, I would argue against any abortion that fits my definition. Note that terminating a pregnancy to save the life of a mother is not an abortion.  Both lives matter.  In a typical circumstance, physicians would do everything in their power to save both lives.  In other words, the purpose of the medical intervention is to save the mother and the infant no matter the eventual outcome, and therefore, it is not an abortion by my definition or under my preferred policy.

A child conceived through rape or incest is an innocent and precious human being no matter the tragic circumstances leading to its conception.  We sympathize with the extreme trauma a mother may experience in this circumstance, but that doesn’t justify the ending of an innocent life.  There are alternatives available to a pregnant mother.  Frankly, there are procedures available in an emergency room that would prevent the pregnancy, and therefore, as in the example above, by my definition an abortion has not occurred. There are and have been many human beings who have lived wonderful and productive lives in spite of the circumstances surrounding their conception.

In an enlightened society, human life should be protected and nurtured to the fullest extent of our abilities.

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The Meaning of Words

The wind is free and fossil fuels are finiteThis simple declarative statement illustrates a point about human language and logic.  We can string words together that sound smart, even clever, and certainly true.  If we take the time to consider the meaning, we often find flaws and fallacies in what we say.  Conversely, if we don’t carefully consider the arguments we hear or utter, we might be fooled by others or by ourselves.   On its own, a sentence like this may be true, but the message it conveys may be false, misleading, or even absurd.

This sentence argues in favor of wind turbines as a superior source of energy.  The commenter believes this, and in that sense is just being honest.  It is difficult to challenge this statement because we do experience wind at no cost, and the abundance of fossil fuels could never be described as infinite.  The writer opposes the continued reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas.  It was posted as a comment about a recent German research study that focused on the possible harmful effects to humans and other life from low frequency sound waves near large wind farms.

It is not important who made this statement.  I don’t know this person who is apparently well educated having earned advanced degrees in the field of climate science.  I often read articles on this website, and frequently read comments by this person.

We all do this:  we say something that sounds good, but upon further review, we find the message was confusing.  In the present case, the sentence may be true, but the message it conveys is not.  I am sure that Aristotle would describe this as a kind of fallacy using nice sounding Latin words—something like argumentum non sequitur.  Each half of the sentence by itself is arguably true, but put together they create a false illusion by begging unstated questions.  Are fossil fuels not free?  Is wind infinite?

Experiencing the wind may be free, but converting wind energy to a form that we can use is not.  In fact, it is more expensive than burning fossil fuels and certainly less reliable.  It may also be harmful to birds and other life, including human life.  Furthermore, it requires extensive surface area that may have a high cost, in dollars and in environmental impact.

Fossil fuels are finite, but so is the wind.  And not all fuels are fossil fuels, not even all carbon-based fuels, are fossil fuels.  In fact, the term “fossil fuels” is a misnomer that is used wrongly to describe carbon containing fuels that may undergo combustion when combined with oxygen to produce energy that we can use.  These fuels contain chemical energy which we can convert to energy to heat and even cool our buildings, and it can be converted to kinetic energy to move things.  These fuels are just as free as the wind!  However, converting the energy in fossil fuels to a form that we can use is not free, but it is less expensive than extracting the energy in wind.

Infinity is not a number.  It is a way of describing something that has no limit, no number.  In nature, it is difficult to find infinities, because we ourselves are limited in our perceptive abilities as well as our knowledge.  Very large and very small numbers are all around us, but they are not infinite.

The amount of carbon in the observed universe is enormous, but definitely finite, unless time and space are infinite.  Carbon is the fourth most abundant element by mass after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen.  Burning fuels that contain carbon does not change the carbon into some other element.  It is carbon both before and after it is burned.  Combustion of carbon containing compounds is one small part of the carbon cycle.  We never use up carbon, we change it chemically, and we can change it back.  All we need to do this is energy.  What starts out as a piece of wood can become part of a piece of wood again after it has burned, thanks to photosynthesis.  What starts out as coal, can find its way back to coal again, or to oil or natural gas, or to a leaf, a piece of limestone, or even to a diamond or the pencil you hold in your hand.

Carbon is by far the most associative element in the universe.  There are more different substances made of carbon than all other kinds of substances combined.  Carbon will be around much longer than wind will be around.  Carbon will still be around after our solar system is long gone, and our Milky Way Galaxy for that matter.  That which we call the wind, will not even remain a memory.  As long as there are humans to burn carbon fuels, there will be carbon fuels to burn.  You don’t have to worry about running out of carbon, but I expect we will stop burning large quantities of it as an energy source at some point in the not to distant future.  On the other hand, a wind farm the size of the earth’s surface is not large enough to provide the energy we will need.  Land is also finite, as is our patience for foolish statements.

Words have meaning and so do sentences and paragraphs.  But there is meaning between the lines as well, and it often speaks the greater truth.

Wind energy is not free, nor is the energy from fossil fuels.  Neither is infinite.

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Damn the Inconvenient Science

The recent commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy by the President was remarkable for many reasons.  At a time when so many difficult international challenges cause concern for our national security, why would he choose to focus on climate change?

New England and PEI 2009 (104)

Yes, climate changes, it always has and it always will!  But the President’s speech presented deeply flawed arguments based on absurd assumptions.  Does the President believe that humans can somehow control global climate or even prevent the climate from changing?  Does he believe that the climate that existed at some arbitrary time in the past was superior to the climate we experience today?  Does he believe that changes to the climate in the future will necessarily make circumstances worse for humans and all life?  Why would he use this occasion to sound this particular alarm, and expose his profound ignorance of this matter at the same time?

Others with unassailable scientific credentials disentangled the Presidents claims and warnings in his speech.  One writer identified 24 specific statements about climate in the speech that were known to be untrue or at best highly debatable.  This President, like most of the other 42 men who preceded him in office, does not claim to be a scientist.  It is obvious, therefore, that he’s listening to his political advisors, and he’s pandering to his base.  Damn the inconvenient science anyway.

It is difficult to comprehend the complexity of the construct known as climate.  The sun is a primary driver of atmospheric dynamics.  Trying to describe some hypothetical average weather for a specific region or for the entire planet is a fool’s mission.  Our sun is a variable star.  Our distance and orientation to the sun is always changing in pseudo-cycles related to seasons, glaciations, and ice ages.  The Earth itself is another important driver of changes in the atmosphere because of the heat from nuclear fission in the core, mantle, and crust that ultimately reaches the oceans, continents, and the atmosphere.  And yes, it is definitely true that human activities change climate.  Average weather conditions around and in modern developed areas are distinctly different than when the land was an untouched forest, desert, marsh, grassland, tidal basin, barrier island, or mountain valley. For thousands of years, we have modified local weather conditions where we live and produce the fruits of our diverse cultures.   All life changes the environment and the atmosphere in profound ways, not just human life.

Trying to predict how average atmospheric conditions will change in the future is not possible because our scientific understanding is not sophisticated enough.  Seemingly chaotic events unknown to us could change everything, overnight, over decades, over centuries and over the millennia.  For proof of this, just take a look at climate change in the past, in the historical as well as in the geological record.

This entire debate can be elucidated by a very simple equation.

C = A + N

Climate change (C) is necessarily the sum of anthropogenic (A) and natural (N) causes.  There are two unknowns on the right side of the equation.  Science has not determined the extent to which our human activities cause climate change, and no scientist can say how the average weather conditions of the earth or a region might have changed, if humans were not present.

The President and his political advisors argue that (A) is greater than (N), significantly greater.  They assert that using carbon based energy sources in modern societies is the cause.  They also assume that limiting the use of those energy sources will reduce (A), and consequently (C), to near zero.  Furthermore, they believe that (A) is bad and (N) is good.  Ironically, (N) is known to have catastrophic consequences for humanity, while (A) is usually manageable.  Finally, they justify the cost of reducing (A) without comparing that to the cost of adapting to (C).   According to most economists who have studied these issues, the President’s plans require enormous costs with differentially negative impact on the poor and especially those that live in underdeveloped areas of the world.  The benefits of the President’s plans are negligible and likely immeasurable, except perhaps to the bank accounts of the political action committees and candidates that appeal to extreme environmentalist causes and organizations.

Graduates of the Coast Guard Academy do have an important, even vital, responsibility to protect our national security.  I hope they consider their future challenges in a more rational manner than was presented to them during their commencement ceremony.

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Religious Freedom

cropped-img_06471.jpgThe United States Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion.  The Religious Freedom and Restoration Act of 1993, which passed Congress with nearly unanimous bipartisan support before being signed into law by President Clinton, endorses this constitutional guarantee.  The vast majority of states have similar laws and court rulings further securing this natural liberty.  Religious freedom is one of the founding principles of our representative republic.

Why would some national media outlets and networks, among others, criticize the State of Indiana for recently enacting such a law?  I can think of only three possible explanations: 1) they are ignorant of the law and the Constitution; 2) the editorial predisposition of these news organization is in opposition to the free exercise of religion; and 3) Indiana enjoys conservative leadership and a possible aspirant for the presidency in 2016.

For most of us, our beliefs provide a moral framework for greater civility.  Tolerance of our differences, be they religious, ethnic, gender, skin pigmentation, and even our transient judgements about the daily happenings in our lives, certifies our continuing viability as a people and as a sovereign nation.  Stifling the free exercise and expression of diverse religious beliefs is not religious tolerance.

Contrary to the failed arguments of the politically and ideologically motivated talking heads, the free exercise of religion does not give license to criminal or civil violations.  No matter what your religious or irreligious motivations, you are not allowed to break the law, and this includes laws regarding discrimination.

Historically, nations dominated by a single national religion tended toward tyrannical rule.  Nations with two or few competing religions often descended into chaos and civil war.  Ironically, the multi-ethnic, multi-religion character of the United States results in greater tolerance of diverse religious perspectives.  Maintaining that tolerance is vital to our prosperity.  We should do everything in our power to keep governments out of our personal and spiritual lives.

Whatever your religion, I hope you have a wonderful day on this glorious Palm Sunday, 2015.

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