Human Consumption and our Planet’s Future

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Pixabay: Peter H

Human consumption is not just about food. It’s about clean water, clean air, energy sources, minerals, rock, sand, lithium, rubber, wood, all the ingredients that provide us with our homes, furniture, cars, clothing, tech devices, electricity, heating and cooling our homes, means of running our cars, sports equipment, entertainment, and other creature comforts. The increase in population and need for homes mean more natural land is being paved over for homes and agriculture.


To take one example, we are buying more clothing and discarding it sooner. The clothing industry accounts for 20% of our water pollution and remains only behind the fossil fuel industry in that regard. Every year the world consumes over 80 billion clothing items. In 2013 over 15 million tons of textile waste was produced according to the EPA. When clothing ends up in landfills. chemicals, such as dye, leach into the ground. When unsold clothes are burned, CO2 escapes—as much as 1.2 billion tons per a World Resources Institute report.


Amazon trees are being felled to make way for agriculture, reducing oxygen produced by them, and an environment for wild life. We buy knick-knacks, souvenirs, toys galore, decor for every holiday, political swag, gadgets for special uses or plain silliness—remember that awful fish on a board to hang on your wall that wagged its tail and talked or sang. When the last parent passes on, their belongings don’t. They are hauled to the dump by the truckloads.(Advice to the elderly is to clean out the attic so your loved ones are spared such trips.)


Plastic has been my bugaboo as it takes eons to degrade and is killing ocean life including the plankton that produce more oxygen than the Amazon forest. Containers for goods are next to unavoidable. We once used glass, but glass requires sand, of which there is not an infinite amount, and too much removal from some sites have had a negative impact. Cardboard originates from trees. Face it, we’re consuming at a faster rate than Mama Nature can provide.

I’m as guilty as the next person, seeking the perfect lemon squeezer, the foam pillow designed to prop my ipad in bed, plastic storage boxes to park stuff in my attic. Now, I’m determined to turn over a new leaf. I’m saving plastic containers and bags for reuse rather than buying those convenient seal plastic bags. I reuse unsoiled tinfoil. My hubby thinks I’m nuts but gets in trouble when he balls it up, thinking it’s fun. I’m encouraged by efforts to manufacture a biodegradable plastic or plastic-like material to use in containers, millennials who are eschewing abundant wardrobes. Like most of us I’ve spent most of my life accumulating. Now it’s time to stop and begin shedding. Unfortunately, most of the young don’t want our family heirlooms of china, crystal, and silver.

As a footnote, I highly recommend David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet on Netflix. In fact, it should be required in our schools and for adlults to be allowed to vote. I plan to devote my next blog to its message. The documentary not only is a stark commentary on human’s impact on the planet, it includes ways we can avoid disaster.

An Anthem to Ants

Ants are a fascinating species. They manage their jobs in a bipartisan way such that colonies enviably run smoothly. Fun facts about them abound. People marvel that they carry 10 to 50 times their weight. However, that is just mathematics. Our weight is determined by our volume. If we were to double our three dimensions our weight would double three times so we’d weigh eight times as much. Our strength is determined by area. If we double every dimension, the roughly circular cross section of our upper arm would become four times as much given the forumla for the area of a circle. Thus, our strength would be relatively weaker. Similarly, if we were to halve all dimensions we’d weigh 1/8 as much and be 1/4 as strong, so relatively stronger. We’d be musclebound if we were the same size as an ant.

I don’t recall the politician who perfectly described: big money in politics like ants in a kitchen. You block one entrance and they find another way in. When we first moved to California, a pleasant surprise was the absence of pesky insects, except for ants who invaded our house once a year. Now, I worry that we haven’t seen them for years as insects are critical for our survival.

This blog was inspired by a curious fact that there are pavement ants who clean our urban sidewalks of crumbs, no doubt each weighing much more than the carrier ant. No doubt country ants also help keep things clean. They eat aphids and help with pollination. They are needed for peonies to blossom. The buds have such a tough cover that if ants didn’t chew on them, the peonies couldn’t burst into beautiful blooms My husband learned that as a boy. He received a scolding for spraying antkiller on the buds. He thought he was doing a good deed.

In researching ants, I discovered that there are more than 15,000 different ant species, and their total biomass rivals that of all of the humans in the world. Just glad they’re small.

What’s at our fingertips?

By Jose Luis Agapito

Scientists have recently discovered that the sensitivity of our touch is due to the ridges in our fingertips. Previously, it had been assumed that their sole purpose was to enhance our ability to grip things, presumably not to assist in finding criminals.

Researchers inserted tungsten electrodes into the main nerve of volunteers’ arms. Then they took a card covered with tiny flat- tipped cones—less than half a millimeter high— and stroked the fingertips in different directions varying the speed.They were able to record the activity of single nerve cells, and their locations. The location of the dubbed hot spots matched the pattern of the ridges, which are only .4 millimeters high.

Dogs and other animals do not have ridges on their paws nor are their prints unique. However, dog nose prints are unique because of their bumps and holes. I don’t know if anyone has ever tested whether these contribute to their sensitivity of touch. Given that dogs have superior sense of smell, they shouldn’t need to poke their noses where they do to get a whiff so maybe they are checking out texture as well as smell.

On the other side of our fingertips are our nails. I claim fingernails as my favorite tool for scraping and getting into thin places.

Of course if we got into fingers I could write a long essay of their uses, even individual fingers for communication. I’m suddenly reminded of a story about a man whose hand had been mangled. It was reconstructed including reattaching appropriate nerve endings. Unfortunately, a couple of nerves were swapped such that if the man went to thumb rides, he would give drivers the third finger salute. Ala Dave Barry, I am not making this up.

Do Living Things Have an Adaptive Gene?

It’s as if the Covid-19 virus is stalking the vaccines becoming available and in self-defense is developing a number of mutations. Scientists say it is rather common for viruses to mutate, so perhaps it’s the attention being paid to this one that makes its changing seem so aggressive. There has long been concern about overuse of antibiotics lest nastier bacteria take over.

The evolution of life on Earth is continuous, but we commonly think of it as being very slow and due to random changes that happen to improve a species to an extent that the changed individual is more successful in reproducing. As a result, it becomes the dominant form. I’ve long had trouble with the total randomness of change. To me it seems too many coincidences. Numerous deep sea organisms can bioluminesce. For the ability to create light to have randomly occurred in so many species seems unlikely to me. A deep sea shark called a kitefin was recently found who could biolumenesce. Six feet long, it is the largest known bioluminescent organism.

Further, there are a number of examples of favorable evolution within lifetimes. I recall a case of fresh water fish adapting to salt water dumped into an inland lake by a tsunami. Dr. Dean Edell once described an area with many tall posts that birds claimed as their favorite places to park. This may be because both the birds and posts were white, which made them harder to spot by predator birds. As the posts weathered and turned darker, so did the birds. When the posts were repainted, the birds evolved back to white. The highlighted article describes more examples including viruses, bacteria, and resistance of pests and fish to pesticides as well as moths whose wings turned darker in dirty areas; stray dogs reverting to become more wolf-like; toads imported from Hawaii to Australia became more kangaroo-like, developing longer legs and hopping greater distances.

Some mutations not likely to continue:

I wonder if human thumbs will evolve to be longer and more agile because of the popularity of texting. Epigenetics is a fascinating subject of how genes can be turned off or on by diet or the environment and I suspect may someday explain rapid evolution.

Our Constantly Moving, Changing World

If you’re like me, on a day-to-day basis you feel you’re living at a fixed place of the Universe. You’re incognizant of the fact you’re moving about 1,000 miles per hour because of the rotation of Earth. The rotation of iron at our core causes electricity, hence magnetism. It’s as if Earth has a long magnet running through it. We have a magnetic North and South pole. I’ve blogged about the change in position of the North pole, recently moving East at tens of miles per year, indicating to geologists a flip of the North and South poles will happen soon. Of course “soon” is in ecological time so if you’re reading this, it is unlikely to be in your lifetime, but  It is likely to upend—pun intended—human lives.

Now, it appears that there are big changes in another moving part of Earth, namely ocean currents. Again, apart from waves, we don’t think of water deep in the ocean as racing around the globe, but it does. There are many currents, which circulate in loops. The most well-known is the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic. It is responsible for European countries’ temperate weather compared to other countries at the same latitude. It travels in a roller coaster loop. Warm water moves north along the east side of the US. Its high salt content makes it denser, as well as its cooling in encountering colder water. As a result, the current dives lower.

Scientists have detected signs that the current’s speed is slowing down. The evidence is indirect as they have only been tracking the current’s speed since 2004. However, temperature, microbial organisms in the ocean floor, and many other measurements have been tracked longer and are consistent with considerable slowing of the current. At least part of the reason for the slowing is due to the melting of Arctic ice, which has little salt content and cools the current more rapidly forcing the current downward further south.  If the current were to stop completely, we would enter an ice age as depicted in the movie, The Day After Tomorrow. It is ironic that global warming would be the cause of an ice age. Again, we won’t see it in our lifetimes, but in the short term the slowing is believed to increase the number and severity of hurricanes and storms.

I’m glad I’m old. It’s the only thing thatt keeps me going.

Quarks Can Have charm or Be Strange

At one time physicists thought that the atom was the smallest unit of matter. Then, in the 19th century protons, electrons, and neutrons were discovered that make up atoms, and have positive, negative, or no electrical charge respectively. Naturally, this inspired much research on the nature of these particles. In particular, the questions of whether these constituted all of the subatomic particles and whether these were indecomposable into even smaller particles. Over time, more subatomic particles were discovered, and labeled elementary if they were not composed of smaller particles. Muons, pions, photons, bosons were one many discoveries, and determining their properties required further research.

It turned out that an abstract area of mathematics, namely Group Theory, was useful in organizing the collective information. As a mathematician, I was fascinated by the fact that particle physicists believed the picture would be more elegant if other particles existed with specific properties. Given these properties, the physicists were able to design experiments to detect the conjectured particles. They succeeded. It was as if a biologist predicted the existence of an animal whose size, appetite, and habits were known, and then set a trap appropriately large with enticing food in an area conducive to its existence. I love that the physicists believed that the universe consists of mathematical beauty.

The newly discovered particles were called quarks, which came in six “flavors”: up, down, top, bottom, charm, and strange. Each of the six quarks has an antiquark. Originally, only three quarks were discovered. Further, it turns out that one can never isolate a quark. It always occurs with its antiquark partner.

When the Rubik’s cube became all the rage, I used Group Theory to concoct moves that could be used to restore a messed up cube. It turns out that one can never have a single twisted corner and all the other pieces in place, but you can have two twisted corners, one clockwise and the other counterclockwise like the quark and antiquark. What a fun coincidence! Well, not a total coincidence since Group Theory is the connection.

Free image/jpeg, Resolution: 3300×2200, File size: 772Kb, Puzzle Game Cube Rubik’S Cube

What’s most new—within the last decade— is the discovery at CERN of a subatomic particle made up of four quarks. The article calls the particle exotic, possibly because it’s the first made up of four quarks of the same flavor, namely charm, and of course their antiquarks.

What is interesting is that some posited particles such as the Higgs boson exist but have extremely short lives once isolated.

Physicists are amazing and also have an amazing sense of humor. Check out the faux and funny discovery of a new substance called administratium. It has one neutron, 125 assistant neutrons, 75 vice neutrons and 111 assistant vice neutrons.

How Amazing are Eggs and Scientists’ Curiostiy?

If you regard seeds as eggs, then all life begins with eggs. Many of our days also begin with eggs: fried, boiled, scrambled, poached, or omeleted. I like my fried eggs crispy.

Yummy

Scientists study the most unusual things. A recent study involved trying to determine the criteria that birds use to reject eggs that don’t belong to their nests. Lazy birds like cowbirds try to get other birds to do their egg-tending for them. They tested for size, shape, and color. Size turned out to be the most significant aspect for Mama Bird to decide which of those eggs didn’t belong. Most peculiar is that an egg that was  Robin’s-egg-blue and similar in size to Robin’s eggs, but shaped like an octahedron was not rejected. I would have thought it uncomfortable to sit on.

Ouchy octahedron

I do know that mother birds are very protective of their eggs as their future babies. I grew up on a farm, and had the daily job of gathering eggs. The hens had nests in a specially built bookcase-like frame. If a hen was in a nest, I knew I would get pecked if I tried to remove her or her egg. I would take off a shoe, put my hand inside, and push her head to the side as I reached under and collected her egg. Fortunately, she didn’t chase after me when I left the henhouse.

Other scientists discovered that even before hatching, some birds receive and remember parental alarm calls, which slightly shake the eggs. Further, the about-to-born chicks can pass on the information to other eggs in the nest. Once again, the scientists decided to test this by removing eggs from nests and subjecting some eggs to alarm calls and not others. Then they were returned to the nests, and measured response times to alarm calls were a few seconds faster in the nests with the exposed eggs. Who would have thought?

Hey, did you hear that?

A more significant and controversial issue faces human beings as medical science now has the capacity to alter DNA in human eggs. While the ability to correct to prevent life-threatening diseases sounds like a miracle to impending parents, the idea of designer babies has so far checked scientists from going too far.

Hate Preparing for a Colonoscopy? There’s a Better Way

Related to problems with septic tanks as waste management systems, problems with human waste management systems have been inspected by colonoscopies.

Recently, I was surprised and delighted to discover that a home test has been developed that detects whether you need one. It is claimed to be equally effective as .colonoscopies in saving lives. Instead of drinking lots of nasty stuff, and then spending the rest of the day rushing to the throne, you go once and swab a small amount. Mail it to a lab for analysis and wait for the results. The new tests can detect microscopic amounts of blood, in which case you will need further investigation and possible treatment. I infer that you’d schedule a colonoscopy with the intention of having any polyps removed,

This is precisely what I’d like medical science to include in its research, cheaper and easier means of saving lives. I hope this country will have a serious discussion about the expense of adding a few months of life to people who are on their last legs.

Colonoscopies are not recommended over 75 years of age as going under anesthesia is not risk free, and colon cancer is slow growing. This test could continue to be used at any age and a risk assessment can be done.

Necessity is the Mother of Scientific Inventions

Catherine Coleman Flowers a MacArthur Foundation “genius”, is partnering with environmental engineers at Columbia University on the design of a toilet that will turn solid waste into fertilizer and liquid waste into water clean enough for washing clothes. This sounds amazing for a future with more people on the planet requiring more fresh water from a diminishing supply, along with more food and energy.

However, her inspiration was not futuristic, but based on what is happening in the county of Lowndes in Alabama where she grew up. Low income families with no public sewer available relied on a septic system, but due to climate change—not necessarily due to carbon dioxide—the average yearly rainfall has increased over time, resulting in the water table level rising. A septic system not only requires a tank, but a drain or leach field. The sludge remains in the tank, which has to be pumped out periodically. The effluent flows into the drain field. With the high water table, the effluent didn’t sink into the soil but bubbled up onto people’s properties, providing an environment for hookworms and other nasty small critters harmful to human health, something rarely seen in developed countries. The cost of specially engineered septic systems is out of reach for the ordinary resident, but the $500 cost of more frequent removal of the sludge is a Catch 22. On top of this, people were once fined for lack of maintenance.

As I thought about the problem, I found myself angry that people had to live this way, but in my research was heartened to learn that the problem had reached the attention of the federal government, partly because the county was the hardest hit by Covid-19. One of the residents testified before Congress. Bernie Sanders and Jane Fonda visited the area. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working on the issue of turning sewage into drinking water worldwide. Some funds have been provided to finance the special septic systems In Lowndes Coutny. At least ten have been installed.

However, according to Flowers, not only this Alabama county but also the flooded coasts of Florida to thawing Alaska towns contain an estimated half-million U.S. households that lack adequate sanitation. According to the CDC more than 35% of the world population is in the same situation. This larger need has inspired her to design a better septic system, one that is inexpensive and easy to run and maintain. It will separate waste into various recyclable elements. She also plans sensors that can monitor for signs of pathogens, including the coronavirus. Her article doesn’t explain how it will work nor how it can be done cheaply, but I salute her.

My New Years Visions for Science

By Bart Everson – https://www.flickr.com/photos/editor/46900157282/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76273955

* One of my visions is that plastic, Styrofoam, etc. will be replaced by products that won’t languish in a landfill. I was delighted to receive an online order recently with packing peanuts made of starch. They dissolve in water and are biodegradable. The sender claimed they were cheaper than Styrofoam. Evidently, they have been around since the 1990s, but they were new to me.

* I’ve blogged before about biodegradable plastics being developed and already some such bags are in use. I am anxious to see them become the norm. Now, I can only reuse plastic packaging as much as possible. No more seal-a-meal bags!

*I’d love to see a way to scrub carbon dioxide from the air that is safe and economically feasible . Scientists are quiet about their work on it for fear that people will believe society need not worry about pollution, and of course fear of failure or unintended consequences.

* How about battery storage for electricity becoming cheaper and more available so that solar and wind energy use can be maximized.

* I see electric airplanes in our future. Work has begun on small planes.

*The kind of scientific medical discoveries that I long for are those that will result in less invasive surgeries and more affordable cures. I find myself amazed at what research shows can be done, but often at tremendous cost.

*And wouldn’t it be great if someone invented a pill to erase our memories of the agony of 2020.

Here’s to better 2021 to all!

Eloise

Miss some 2020 Sky Visions because of clouds?

Geminind meteor shower on Dec 13th? Click here.

Saturn Jupiter conjunction on the winter soltice? Click here.

Our Brain is Our Clandestine Command Center

According to a recent NYTimes article, we are barely conscious of our most frequent brain activities, namely those that run our bodies. If our body begins to become dehydrated we feel thirsty and drink water. Our brain can instantly makes us feel quenched even though there hasn’t been enough time to replenish the blood stream. It anticipates the end result. (Hmm, unfortunately, we don’t feel full soon enough after beginning to eat.) A normal body requires water, salt, glucose, nutrients, sleep, movement, etc. The brain sees its job as anticipating your body’s need to replenish the required resources. This automatic management by our brains is scientifically known as allostasis.

Our Command Center Brain Controls Our Needs

The article likens this brain function to a personal financial advisor who manages your deposits and withdrawals. You can’t withdraw much energy if you haven’t made a sleep or nutrient deposit in days.

Most of this is not new, but most of us hold the view that our brain has this automatic side, which we don’t think about and a thinking side. However, the author of the article, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University professes that the brain is not for thinking and all brain activity is in service of maintaining the body.

I interpret her claim to mean that what we see as purely mental cannot be separated from allostasis. Deep breathing is physical, but It can act to calm us. More sleep can replenish emotional energy as well as physical. Presence on social media can deplete our social energy while not satisfying our need for human contact. Most people are experiencing weariness due to the Covid pandemic and the recent election, i.e. our brain is making withdrawals from our well-being, and we need to consider making deposits such as taking a nature walk, listening to music, watching light-hearted television, and in my case doing jig-saw and other puzzles proportional to the amount of time we worry about the 2020 world.  Hmm, am I withdrawing from my mental energy or adding to it when I use my brain on puzzles? Not sure.

Another hmm. The brain may spend more energy on our bodily functions, but thinking is indeed one of its functions. We may not be able to live without the brain making sure our bodies stay shipshape, but we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t think. How would we make scientific discoveries without the brain, for example? Perhaps the author meant thoughts related to feeling rather than analyzing, deducing, researching, and understanding..