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.

Is Scientific Avoidance of Unexplainable Phenomena Ending?

The above photo was leaked from NASA, It’s not the one in the news. For some time, people who claim to have seen UFOs have been discredited as nut cases. So much so, that many who experience unknown phenomena have failed to report them for fear of ridicule.

Now, the pentagon is about to do a report on the small percentage of events that are not explainable by known ordinary occurrences or at least on one singular event that has been sighted for years by military pilots. It is anticipated that the report will neither confirm nor deny that the strange behavior of this flying object including exuding no visible exhaust, unusual speed, and spinning is extraterrestrial. However, the fact that the object of interest is being taken seriously is remarkable.

So many natural things have taken human beings centuries to explain that it seems odd not to research unexplainable flying objects. For example, I’m not sure we completely understand how generations of butterflies return to the same exact locations year after year or birds to their winter and summer homes, but the fact they do is well established so it’s not treated as astounding as it is. It is believed the critters are sensitive to the earth’s magnetism. Ditto for animal behavior before earthquakes.

I recall hearing a researcher on NPR years ago lament he could not get results published on the possible transmission of information among a single species. He had taught some kind of rodent to accomplish some kind of task, neither of which I remember. He then discovered that the same kind of rodent living across the ocean learned the task much more quickly. Dee de dee dee. Dee de dee dee. Other scientists have tested people for ESP, finding a few individuals who performed well above average over periods of time. Little attempt to replicate these studies have been made to my knowledge. However, that’s what science normally does to confirm what may be new discoveries.

The fact that some Defense Department projects are hidden from the public has added to the confusion over UFOs as in the Roswell mystery. The lie that the debris found was from a weather balloon was not credible. The foil-like material was different than any substance ever seen. Indeed the material was secretly developed and is in use today. At our visit to the Roswell center we ecnountered a group of teenagers with tinfoil hats preceding us into the museum, but accounts that hung on the walls were quite convincing that the weather balloon explanation lacked the credibility that the discoverers displayed. Years later the Defense Department revealed that the debris came from the secret Project Mogul.  Then there are other countries such as Russia secretly spying on us, who might be the source of the debris. Other elements of the Roswell story—namely that some eyewitnesses claimed that there were alien bodies taken from the site—were explained as fallen parachute-test dummies in a more extensive follow-up report.

At any rate, I herald this day if it means sensible people won’t be dismissed out of hand for reporting unusual events.  

The Science of Truth and Belief

Throughout human history, there have been those who promote falsehoods for various reasons: flawed logic, religious beliefs, superstition, and for financial or political gain. However, the challenge of discerning the truth has become greater than in the past because of social media and other online information flooding our brains, decreasing our ability to keep up. A recent article discusses the consequences to our capability to discern the truth. In an attempt at efficiency, humans have historically used simple rules to choose quickly what to believe. Because in the past, most of what we heard was true, we frequently erred on the side of belief. Research supports that we attend to information that is new, exciting, and supports what we already believe. This describes much of the messaging that bombard us online. The more often one hears a false claim, the more believable it becomes as many charlatan politicians and news reporters well know.

A computational social scientist, Jevin West, cowrote Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World. In addition to the difficutly of discerning truth, he advises: “We’re also contending with a platform, and with algorithms and bots that know how to pierce into our cognitive frailties.” (I frequently boast that I grew up on a farm and am familiar with the smell of BS.) According to West, times of uncertainty like that caused by Covid prompts more dangerous speculation.

Further, social media uses means to hook us into frequent use by tempting us to get more likes, retweets, etc, which encourages us to share more, particularly unusual posts. Information scientist, Sinan Aral of MIT and author of the 2020 book The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health — And How We Must Adapt argues   “Novelty has an advantage in the information economy in terms of spreading farther, faster, deeper.”

Many universities require a course in “critical thinking” as part of their general education requirements. I consider critical thinking as one of the best consequences of a college education. Classes have tips such as considering the source of information, how to recognize flawed arguments labeled : straw dog or straw man device (substitute a similar but easily refuted claim instead of the one in question,) topic avoidance via vague and unrelated generalities, wrong attribution to a respected figure, cherry picking, poor analogies, overgeneralization, quoting out of context, and more.

Will Organ Donation Some Day Become Obsolete?

I’ve always been dumbfounded about 3-D printing. I’m old enough to have taken typing before the invention of word processing, which I took in stride as progress. However, 3-D printing amazes me as nothing short of miraculous. A recent articlecompounds my wonder. Progress has been made on 3-D printing human organs, blood vessels and all. 3-D printed meat and houses have already been accomplished. (I don’t consider guns as progress, but that’s been done..) The new method, stereolithography, uses jelly-like materials known as hydrogels.

Imagine, people who need transplants not having to wait for a suitable donor.

On an unrelated matter, here’s my daughter’s photo of the recent “pink moon.” It wasn’t named pink for the color of the moon but for the color of phlox, which blooms in April. So this pink moon obliged its name.

I also read an article about ways to circumvent Physics Uncertainty Principle. Does that mean that the Uncertainty Principle. isn’t certain. Perhaps my next blog.

Muons Are Shaking Up Physics

The Beautiful Fermi Lab in Batavia, Illionois

A muon is like an overweight electron. Like many subatomic particles, it doesn’t live very long. In 2001, scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island discovered that muons didn’t have the predicted magnetism. It was 2.5 times as large. Since science studies require replication and the experiment was expensive, Brookhaven could not try to verify their result. Fermi Lab in the US took up the challenge. Fermi Lab is near Chicago in Illinois and not far from where I once lived and took advantage of their theater offerings to provide convenient cultural events for their researchers.

Brookhaven retired the 50 ft diameter magnet racetrack that spun the muons, and it was sent on a 3,200 mile trip from Long Island to Batavia, Illinois in 2013 via barge around Florida, up the Mississippi River, then by truck through Illinois. It took years for Fermilab to gear up, but they recently replicated the results.

The result is deemed as important as finding the Higgs Boson. So the magnetism is not what they expected. What’s the big deal? Science is not like mathematics where theories can be proved or disproved. A scientific theory cannot be proved, but it can be disproved. If a scientific theory predicts X, Y, and Z, and later it turns out the X, Y, and Z occur, it is only evidence that the theory is correct. It does not mean that X, Y, and Z are true because of the theory. However, if something predicted by the theory turns out not to be the case, the theory cannot be right. That’s what has just happened. Now, all of the believed theory mostly emanating from Einstein must have a flaw! The challenge is to find it.

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.