Life’s Beginning – part II

As noted previously there are many descriptions of what is life, but they all require recognition of the need for reproduction. Reproduction however requires adding order to the universe. This reduces something called entropy which can’t happen spontaneously. It doesn’t mean it can’t happen at all, only it can’t happen spontaneously. The way to make it happen is to add energy (synonymous with work.)
A rock will spontaneously roll down a hill, but to get it back up the hill requires work. It’s the same way with chemistry, there are two kinds of reactions: those that go “downhill” and give off energy in the process (exothermic) and those that have to be driven “uphill” by putting energy into the system (endothermic.)

I mentioned entropy as it is an organizing principle in the universe. Entropy is often referred to as “time’s arrow.” You can tell time by watching sand fall through an hourglass. This is a spontaneous process so time is moving in the proper direction.

Back to creating life. We have to have a molecule (or molecular system) that can reproduce itself, but that process is energetically uphill so we need a source of energy to drive the process. The earliest hypotheses about the beginning of life focused on the oceans as a warm chicken soup of ingredients but didn’t address the necessity of an energy source.

Life began during the Archean period, three and a half to four billion years ago. Times were different then. The earth’s surface and atmosphere chemically much different then but there could have been energy-rich molecules and reactions available to drive the self-assembly of life’s molecules.

This is not dissimilar to how life sustains itself today. To build the complex molecules that we need every day requires a process of combining two kinds of reactions. The chemical reactions we need to build protein for example are very endothermic, that is, energetically uphill. If we combine this reaction with one that is energetically downhill, exothermic, we can make it happen. Foods such as fats and carbohydrates can be used to produce the chemical energy (exothermic reactions) we need to drive the endothermic process of protein synthesis.

We need to combine the replication of an RNA-like molecule with certain reactions that give off energy to drive the process. Those ingredients are present around what are called “white smokers.” These are vents in the ocean floor that continuously emit gases that can combine exothermically. Couple these reactions with our RNA-like molecule and everything needed to sustain life is present.

These two approaches to the beginning of life are little more than the reiteration of what sustains life – reproducing molecules, and energy providing molecules. From my perspective, the process is simple and straightforward and therefore is likely to have occurred more than once. Life could have started several times over but ultimately only one survived, as is indicated by the fact that every living thing is related through our DNA. From the smallest bacteria to every plant and animal. We all share the same genetic code and operate on the same principles of reproduction driven by chemical reactions producing energy. In other words, we are one.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Life’s Beginning

This is not about what is life or what is the purpose of life; as a physical scientist, I can only leave those concerns to others such as philosophers and theologians. No, this is about how life came to be. Not how life evolved over billions of years but what happened to turn inanimate chemicals in biology. This is a discussion of the chemistry to biology hypotheses, as there are a couple of them.

The universe is over thirteen billion years old, our planet about four and a half billion, and life here on earth a scant three and a half billion years. So what happened three and a half billion years ago? It depends on which hypothesis to pursue, which requires just a smidgen of consideration of what is life. I have to consider two characteristics of life, reproduction and metabolism. Life is a continuum so obviously you have to continue, but to continue you have energy ie, metabolic energy. The parts necessary for these two activities are different but somehow have to be combined.

The reproductive part of life is absolute and requires other assistive molecules to keep the process going. The most effective hypothesis so far is the “RNA” world. RNA has a structure such that it has to capacity to spontaneously reproduce itself under the right conditions. The neat thing about RNA is that it can not only act to reproduce more of itself, but also and very importantly to simultaneously do those other assistive chores. It can act as a catalyst to speed or retard chemical processes. It’s kind of a one-stop shop for biology. An RNA must spontaneously assemble as a start – no mean feat.

Likely the biggest argument against the spontaneity of life is the improbability of it happening, hence a brief diversion to probability. Take a deck of cards, shuffle, and layout one by one. What is the probability that the first card comes up to what it is? The odds are 52 to I. For the second card the odds that it is what it is, 51 to 1. For just those two cards the probability that they are there and in that order is 52 times 51, hence 2,652 to 1. Run the calculation through your layout and the odds against that happening as you laid them out is approximately 8 followed by 67 zeros to 1. Not so probable, huh? But there it is. An extremely improbable event happened right before your eyes.

Keep in mind that I am talking about the spontaneous beginning of a very simple reproducing bit of matter, much simpler than anything we can see today. I not trying to build a Ferrari here, rather design a simple pushcart, evolution will eventually get me to the race car.

In review, life may have begun with the spontaneous assembly of a primitive molecule such as RNA which has the capacity to both reproduce itself and also catalyze other processes necessary to what we call life, as improbable as that may appear.

In part II, I will explain that I was less than forthright in this first part. These things I have described as spontaneous aren’t. They go against a simple organizing principle of physical reality – entropy. Throughout the universe disorder and randomness reigns, but that doesn’t mean organization doesn’t exist, just that work has to be done to create and maintain that order. Next time, fuel for the Ferrari, stay tuned.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Covid-19 and Compliance – the Rural Urban Divide

Other things being equal, one would expect infection rates for airborne transmissible diseases such as COVID-19 to be directly proportional to population density. At the beginning of the pandemic here in the United States infection rates were highest in the large cities on the coasts. These are places with high population density as would be expected.

As time went on, we learned that masks and distancing can have a profound impact on decreasing infection rates. The locale of rapidly increasing infection rates has now shifted to the Midwest in states such as North and South Dakota.

Here are some interesting comparisons. Los Angeles County, population density of 2,100 per square mile, has a case rate of about 40 per 100,000. (average number of daily new cases over the last seven days.)

Guttenberg, New Jersey has the highest population density of any city in the United States. It is in Hudson County, across the Hudson River from Manhattan. The population density of Hudson County is 14,000 people per square mile and an infection rate of 50 per 100,000.

Now compare those rates in very densely populated areas where rates would be expected to be high with the rates in much less densely populated counties. Pope County, Arkansas has a population density of 74 per square mile and an infection rate of 55 per 100,000.

Buffalo County, South Dakota, population density of only 4 people per square mile, has an infection rate of 204 per 100,000. The population density of Hudson county is 3,500 times greater than Buffalo county, yet its infection rate is one quarter that of Buffalo County.

It should be glaringly obvious that something else is driving the infection rates beyond population density. That something is the willingness to address the steps necessary to disrupt the transmission of COVID-19. Some areas still have not mandated any wearing of masks, most notably South Dakota. It is no wonder that it has the highest ratio of case rates to population density in the United States.

Mandates to prevent the spread of COVID-19 come in multiple flavors, from lockdowns to unenforced mask mandates. Regardless of laws, the issue is compliance and rural areas seem to be the least compliant. It’s about freedom, right? But that freedom to ignore the pleadings of governors across the country really means the freedom to spread disease and death to loved ones and strangers alike.

Some claim a medical exemption to mask-wearing but there is zero evidence that a mask interferes with the passage of gasses such as Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide. Some with asthma claim an exemption even though most doctors will tell asthmatics that they are at a greater risk without a mask because of their condition. There have even been mask-burning events to protest this simple public health measure.

One wag put the problem this way: There are two issues, one is population density and the other is the density of the population. Listen to the experts, wash your hands frequently, properly wear a mask, and keep a distance. Not one or another, all of them.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Attracting Talent

Governor Hutchinson’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year contains a rather unusual tax cut. The top income tax rate currently is 5.9 percent but the governor proposes to cut it by one percent to 4.9 percent for new residents for 5 years. The idea is to recruit talent for the state’s tech and manufacturing industries from out of state.

The cost of the tax cut is estimated to be a modest 1.5 million dollars in the first year and 4.6 million dollars by fiscal 2023. This is a pittance in a multibillion dollar budget, but any tax cut means fewer services for the public. If this particular tax cut passes it conceivably could do more harm than good. That it passes is unlikely as leadership in both parties question the propriety of the cut.

So what can be done to attract talent in the tech area? How about rather than the “everybody gets a tax cut,” consider the other side of the balance sheet. How about use the funds not removed from the budget to provide additional opportunities for our residents? Education and recreation are two things that come to mind.

On the educational front, the rise in the cost of higher education, at least as a national average has been considerably outstripping inflation. Many students graduate with near-crushing debt. Rather than cutting taxes should we be cutting tuition? This would allow more of our residents to acquire those tech skills so needed for competition, not just with the tech industries in other states, but globally.
What are we up against education-wise? In Denmark, not only is higher education free, students are paid to attend for up to six years. It’s per capita gross national product is among the highest in the world. Such is the horror of socialist policies.

Another way of attracting or more importantly retaining tech talent is the quality of life issues. Outdoor recreation should be at the top of our list for youth in our state. That means taking care of, even nurturing our title as the Natural State. Our national parks and forests need protection and preservation for recreation. Many of our rivers, especially in the western part of the state are national treasures that deserve protection, most notably the Buffalo National River.

The park encompasses about 135 square miles, the boundary of which is only a half-a-mile or so on either side of the river. To preserve and protect the river requires actions watershed-wide which much larger, some 1388 square miles. After a long and public struggle, lead by the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, the state bought out a hog CAFO which threatened to pollute the river. Making a temporary moratorium against medium and large hog CAFOs permanent would go a long way to protect this recreational treasure.

Additional recreational treasures are the Ozark Highlands Trail and the Ouachita National Recreation Trail. With a combined length of over 400 miles, they provide an inexpensive and healthy recreational experience.

Increasing both educational and recreational opportunities will go a long way to attract talent from out of state and retain our homegrown talent.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

A Vaccine? Not so fast

Currently, Covid-19 has killed slightly over a million people worldwide, close to a quarter of that here in the United States. This is about equal to the annual death rate from Tuberculosis which is the most lethal infectious disease worldwide. Interestingly both are airborne respiratory diseases. The recent announcement of a ninety percent effective vaccine has buoyed hope world wide. The vaccine is being developed by a collaboration between Pfizer, an American drug manufacturer and BioNtech, a German Biotech company.

Whereas the initial data is encouraging, it is only initial data. What is yet to be determined is will the vaccine be durable, that is will its effectiveness to prevent the disease last more than a few months? Will it be effective in groups not tested? Pfizer has done a good job of including a mix of ethnic, racial, and age groups in the Phase III trial but will it work with neonates, or pregnant women, or as yet unknown variables?

Its distribution is also problematic as it requires that the vaccine be maintained at nearly minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. That requires special equipment, way beyond a home or commercial freezer, which isn’t commonly available.

A real unknown is its adoptability. If and when an effective vaccine is available, will the public actually get the shot, actually two separated by two weeks? In terms of global human health, vaccinations are second only to good sanitation in improving the life and health of humanity. That said, we are living in a time of distrust in authority in general and in this case distrust in vaccinations.

Although anti-VAX (opposing vaccination) movements have waxed and waned since the time of Edward Jenner and the inception of vaccinations, the current movement began after outright fraud by Andrew Wakefield. He published a since retracted paper claiming that the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism. It turns out that he was paid by an attorney to fabricate data that would be to his advantage in suits by parents with autistic children against drug manufacturers.

Several entertainment personalities promoting the anti-VAX position have apparently had an inordinate influence on the public. Actress/model Jennifer Biel testified against a California bill meant to limit medical exemptions for vaccination of school children. Jim Carrey and his one-time girlfriend Jenny McCarthy, Robert Kennedy Jr, Mayim Bialik of “Big Bang Theory” fame, and others with no relevant medical experience drive the anti-Vax train.

Our current environment of anti-intellectualism and anti-authoritarianism acts to combine with the anti-Vax movement to provide a big impediment to defeating Covid-19. The announcement of preliminary positive results with a vaccine is encouraging but we have a long physical and psychological way to go before life can return to normal. At the earliest, this is estimated to be the third quarter of 2021 or later. Until then we will need to continue to – you guessed it – wash your hands, wear a mask, and maintain a proper social distance.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Energy Jobs and the Future

In the most recent and final presidential debate Joe Biden commented, “I would transition away from the oil industry, yes,” in response to Trump’s accusation that he wanted to wreck the oil industry and force an end to the use of fossil fuels.

By the next day, campaign ads were running in fossil fuel-rich states lambasting Biden’s promotion of renewable energy over fossil fuels. Texas comes to mind. Oops, already 61 % of energy-related jobs in Texas are in renewable energy industries as opposed to oil and gas – 254 thousand renewable energy jobs versus 162 thousand jobs in oil and gas.

If you want to see the future of fossil fuels, look no further than coal. Trump campaigned on revitalizing the coal industry. Several regulations via executive orders favored coal production and use yet the industry is in its death throes. Coal-fired powered plants are rapidly closing around the country not because of governmental largess but rather from simple economics. Wind, solar, and natural gas are all a cheaper way to produce electricity.

An argument has been made that the oil industry is important for transportation but the cost to move an electric vehicle down the road is some one-third to one quarter the cost of moving a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine fueled with gasoline or diesel fuel.

There is no question that transitioning from one form of job within an industry to another will cause a loss of jobs, but at the same time, new job categories will be created. When the horse and buggy were displaced by the automobile, buggy whip makers were thrown out of work. As far as I have been able to determine, no great effort to preserve those jobs occurred. The country moved on with the new technology and new jobs.

The use of fossil fuels is unlikely to go away completely for a long, long time. Lubricants and chemical feedstocks will continue to be made from oil. Useful and recyclable plastics will continue to be made from natural gas. Even coal has a limited utility in smelting ores for industries such as steel manufacturing. Burning a fossil fuel to produce bulk power however, is on the way out. And for good reasons.

First and foremost is economics. Wind and solar are already the cheapest source of electric power if you don’t need storage, and we are a long way from needing storage. Balancing sources on the electric grid can handle up to about thirty percent penetration before storage becomes an issue. Right now we are at slightly less than ten percent of electricity production from wind and solar and vigorous research and development programs are rapidly dropping the cost of storage.

Then there is the continuing existential threat to the planet of global warming and the forcing of climate change. The only way to avert this crisis is to stop loading the atmosphere with greenhouse gasses and ending the use of fossil fuels is the cheapest and fastest way to achieve this end.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Tax and Regulate

A dislike of taxes and regulations are the hallmarks of those with a libertarian bent. These concepts are somehow subsumed in the socialism is bad, capitalism is good rubric. The problem is this is a gross oversimplification that fits well on a bumper sticker but is a terrible way to determine ones voting preferences.

Taxes come in several flavors: regressive sales taxes, property taxes, progressive income taxes, et al. Although you hear lots of complaints about taxes, few complain about the services they provide: National defense, police and fire protection, highways, schools, etc. Supreme Court Jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr famously said: “I like paying taxes, with them I buy civilization.”

Before you reject voting for or against taxes, consider how the tax is structured. Sales taxes lean most heavily on those least able to afford them, whereas progressive income taxes rely on those that need the services the most. Police protection is a little like insurance, the more you have to protect, the more you should pay for the protection.

In a similar vein, regulations are important tools for civilization. They protect us in ways that are impossible to do individually. Clean air and water, climate stability, highway safety, and food and drug safety are just a few.

Another oversimplification is the capitalism-socialism dichotomy. The two are complexly entangled. Generally, I would agree that capitalism is a noble ideal, Adam Smith’s invisible hand can guide a market – but not without oversight. Unfettered capitalism is really anarchy. A perfect example is the black market for heroin. A lot of money can be made, so what if people die from violence and the use of the drug itself?

A capitalist needs to recognize that there have to be constraints to trade that preserve societal goals. Laws and regulations are a necessary evil of capitalism, necessary to civilization. If we can democratically agree on those laws and regulations then capitalism is the bee’s knees.

A little more difficult discussion is the value of socialism. The strict definition for socialism is an economic policy where the means of production are owned collectively, where collectively can refer to the government or simply organized groups, from workers to shareholders. Ironically the hallmark of capitalism, the corporation, can be publicly owned and therefore constitute a socialist enterprise.

If you want to consider socialism where the government is the collective, look no further than police protection. Here the state employs the “workers.” Even here it doesn’t disallow capitalist alternatives such as mall cops and bouncers. Even at the federal level where national defense is involved, we have private contractors participating.

Closer to what folks may call socialism is government management of some aspects of society. Medicare and Social Security come to mind. These are wildly popular and effective entitlement programs – the recipients are entitled to benefits by way of previous payments into the system.

At or near the top of making America great is our public education system. We could do better by increased funding and more equitable distribution, but all in all we would be much worse off without it.

The long and short of it is that the arc of civilization is cooperation. As long as we democratically determine what kind of taxes pay for what kinds of regulations, we have civilization, and civilization is a good thing.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Why We Require Immigration

Even though fertility is significantly below the replacement rate our population maintains modest growth because of immigration. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone as we are, with the exception of much-abused Native Americans, actually or ancestrally immigrants.

Immigration has come in waves from various locales but the one common feature is that immigrants come here to seek a better life for themselves and their families. The most recent wave of immigration is driven largely by those fleeing violence in Central America.

Our current policy, President Trump’s policy has been clear since he first ran for office in 2015 – isolationism. He has referred to immigrants from the south as murderers and rapists that must be prevented from entering the country. His iconic rally cry, build the wall (and Mexico will pay for it,) was little more than an anti-immigrant screed. Now almost four years later the wall is nowhere in sight and has had little to no impact on immigration.

Other actions by President Trump have had harmful effects on immigration. Draconian policies such as separating parents and children have been invoked punitively. Many of these immigrants, separated from their children, are here legally as asylum seekers.

To reduce the number of asylum seekers President Trump created a “safe third country” policy which allows the forced return of asylum seekers to any country they passed through on the way here. Many of these countries are as violent as their home countries. A migrant from El Salvador might pass through equally violent Nicaragua and Guatemala.

To further retard immigration President Trump lowered the total number of refugees allowed in the country from eighty thousand to eight thousand. In addition to migrants from Central America, President Trump set his sights on those from predominately Muslim countries with outright immigration bans.

He sought to eject from the country the so-called dreamers, individuals who were brought to the United States as children. Imagine you are a child brought here as an infant. Later as a young adult, you are forced out of the country back to a home country you never knew, where you don’t even speak the language.

Immigrants have traditionally taken those dangerous, bottom-rung jobs unacceptable to citizens. At the other end of the scale, many immigrants are talented professionals. Close to forty percent of Nobel prize winners in the life and physical sciences since 2000 are immigrants.

This is no time for xenophobia. Immigrants, documented or otherwise, have lower rates of criminal behavior than citizens. Second-generation immigrants – their children are essentially fully integrated into society. They have similar family incomes and college graduation, and homeownership rates. Si se puede.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Healthcare Must Include Everybody

A sure-fire way to lower the cost of health insurance for those willing and able to buy it is to let people die on the curb in front of the hospital. Yep, give up your humanity and you too can save on health insurance. When the motive for healthcare is profit and there is no profit in free riders, what else?

If you opt for humanity and take that person into the hospital, it can cost you, and likely cost you a lot. That person without health insurance will incur costs that the hospital must absorb. The only way for a hospital to stay in business if they accept indigent care is to charge paying customers, usually insurers, more to offset the unreimbursed care.

If we are to be humane and provide care for the free riders, is there a better way? If we wait for high blood pressure to cause a heart attack, treatment of that one event can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Alternatively, drugs to manage high blood pressure can be had for pennies a day. To not provide for the blood pressure medication is just the sort of thing that Ben Franklin spoke of when he said “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The reason President Trump and the Republicans struggle to produce a health plan to replace the ACA, even though they have had several years now, is there is no plan that actually works if it doesn’t include everybody, at least humanly. There are two ways to do that – make sure everybody has access to affordable care through private insurers or go to a less costly single-payer, not for profit, universal healthcare system like just about every other country in the world.

Government managed systems work and work well. We currently spend much more per capita on healthcare with poorer outcomes. There are over 40 countries with lower infant mortality rates, greater life expectancies, and lower costs.

President Trump said his replacement healthcare plan would cover everybody and cost less. So where is it? I can predict immediately that any plan from the Republican party will not mandate coverage with a complete, effective policy. This guarantees free riders and uncompensated costs. Another promise is to lower spending by the elimination of subsidies for the poor. It will lower or eliminate healthcare for the poor.

For those middle-income folks there are now cheaper insurance policies available, but only because of substandard policies. Lower costs mean less coverage. The ACA policies required a minimum standard of coverage which included preventive care. Cheap policies are available which allow you to pick your coverage limit – lower coverages mean lower policy costs. This however, can leave the taxpayer on the hook for catastrophic costs.

The real winners with a conservative healthcare plan are the rich, no surprise there. Taxes will go down while at the same time subsides not previously available to the rich will go up.

Conservatives continue to try to view healthcare as subject to the same market forces as buying unessential commodities, but it just doesn’t work that way. We are alone in the world with our failure to make that recognition. In these times of a debilitating even lethal pandemic, it is unconscionable to not provide quality healthcare to everyone in the country.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Coal is not coming back – Trump fails industry

The world has run on fossil fuels for a couple of centuries but that is changing. Coal was the first of the fossil fuels to be widely exploited. Coal formed during what is called the carboniferous period about three to four hundred million years ago. At the time the planet was especially warm and wet which favored plant growth. Interestingly, this also meant much higher atmospheric levels of Oxygen which allowed for the growth of giant insects – dragonflies with three-foot wingspans as just one example.

The abundant plant growth accumulated first as peat, which over millennia of heat and pressure resulted in the formation of coal, essentially Carbon with a little Hydrogen smushed together in a solid form. And there it sat, until the English started running out of trees, or at least trees close by Iron smelters.

To produce iron from its ore requires something called a reducing agent. Wood works perfectly well but the process uses a lot of it. In merry olde England, a smelter would be built and then woodcutters were sent out to start bringing in the fuel. The longer the smelter operated the farther the woodcutters had to go while clearing the surrounding forests. When the expense of retrieving fuel got too high, coal was determined to be an economic alternative.

Utilization of coal for making iron lead to the understanding of its value as a fuel. It became the leading source of fuel for industrial power production and has dominated for over two hundred years. Of late the major use of coal has been for electricity generation but as of 2013, coal is no longer king and its use appears to be in free fall.

It is rapidly being replaced by a surge in the production of natural gas from hydro-fracturing and more recently wind and solar. Coal’s replacement is obvious and beneficial. Obvious because the other sources are cheaper and beneficial because they are cleaner in terms of the local environment and global warming.

A plank in President Trump’s campaign platform of 2016 was to reinvigorate the coal industry and save coal miner jobs. He has failed to deliver with this plank. Coal use during the first three years of his term is down over twenty percent, this despite several actions that would favor coal use.

President Trump has ordered the rollback of regulations that prevented much water pollution from coal ash. Another deregulation allows increased particulate emissions, along with toxic atmospheric pollutants like Mercury and Lead. He has ordered the removal of an Obama era regulation that required greater efficiency to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants which could actually reduce the cost to ratepayers.
In a fox-in-the-chicken-coop move, President Trump has appointed a coal industry lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. He rejects climate change and is a staunch opponent of any limit on greenhouse gases.

These regulations were meant to improve health, save lives, and help stabilize our climate. President Trump’s deregulations are endangering lives and destabilizing the climate and have been done in a futile attempt to prop up a failing industry.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.