Why Bioluminescence?

Heating a house with a wood stove does involve some tedium and even inconvenience. One is adding wood to the stove in the wee hours. A while back, at maybe four or so in the morning, I went down to stoke the stove. The wood at hand had loose bark which I always remove if possible. I removed the bark and to my surprise in the dark house, the bark glowed a pale green.

This is a good example of bioluminescence, a way of producing light without heat. It occurs across the living world – plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria. Light is produced when certain molecules (substrates) react with oxygen with a special catalyst. This releases energy but unlike all other energy-producing reactions, allows the energy to be released in the form of light. The different molecular substrates produce different colors.

In the deep ocean where most bioluminescent organisms live, the predominant color is blue as that is the color that is least absorbed by water. Other colors occur but are much less common. Some organisms don’t produce light themselves but rather keep bioluminescent bacteria in special organs. In the pitch-black darkness of the deep ocean, bioluminescence is used for all sorts of signaling.

Some toxic worms signal their status to avoid predators, other organisms avoid predation by flashing so brightly and colorfully as to dazzle predators. Some will actually lose a glowing appendage to distract. On the other hand, some predators use a bright flash to dazzle prey. Some predators can use their luminescence to act as a flashlight in the dark, illuminating prey.

There are luminescent organisms even at the surface of the oceans. Certain flagellates luminesce, turning the surface of the ocean into a pale green field, often sparkling when disturbed. And then there is sexual signaling.

There are thousands of species of fireflies and most of them are luminescent. Almost all these species use the light to signal species identification for sexual signaling. Often the flash rate or pattern of flashing is unique to a single species. This allows conspecifics to connect for mating.

A really unique firefly species is a sort of black widow or maybe femme fatale. The females of this species mimic the “flash code” of other species of fireflies. When the males of another species are attracted to the false signal, they are promptly eaten. They don’t even get that last hurrah as do the males of some spiders who at least get to have sex before they get their heads bitten off.

Even the fungi may have sex in mind. The wood rot fungus which glows faintly green, the one I observed, is thought to use the glow to attract insects which are useful for spore dispersal – OK not exactly sex, but propagation.

The value of light production is sufficiently important to have arisen evolutionarily over thirty times over hundreds of millions of years.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University. His website is Bob of the Ozarks, www.ozarker.org

Electric Fleet Vehicles Should Lead the Way

President Biden, unlike his predecessor Donald Trump, has a rather aggressive plan to address global warming and climate change. His plan is not as aggressive as the green new deal proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but nonetheless a much-needed plan which will be beneficial to society. The most important part of addressing climate change in anybody’s plan is to stop burning fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas.

Of the three, coal is on the way out already due to economics. The share of electricity production from burning coal has fallen from over half to less than a quarter in just thirty years. It is being replaced by natural gas and increasingly by wind and solar.

To replace crude oil, the majority of which is refined for transportation fuel, will require electrification. Much greater electrification and for that matter expansion of our rail system. This can go a long way by itself but on the road vehicles must be converted to electricity as well.
Tesla automobiles started off the modern movement to electric vehicles, and represent the lion’s share of all-electric vehicles. Right now the total market for electric vehicles (EVs) represents only 1.8 percent of all. This will change in the future as every major vehicle manufacturer and several new companies are developing Evs.

Likely, light utility trucks will lead the way, especially fleet delivery vehicles. They are ideal for the current state of EV development. Right now two problems limit the expansion of the use of EVs, their somewhat limited range and its attendant range anxiety, and the time to recharge the batteries.
Generally, fleet delivery vehicles have a well-defined daily route so the size of the battery can be matched to the specific needs. Likewise, charging time can be planned for when the vehicle is not in use, usually overnight when electric rates are lower.

Long haul over-the-road trucks will take longer to develop as the charging needs for a large truck like a semi are considerable. A diesel-powered semi with a couple of hundred gallons of fuel has a range on the order of a thousand miles. The current leader in the development of electric semis, Tesla, has a truck with a range of five hundred miles and a charging time on the order of half-an-hour.

The move to electric vehicles, especially box trucks and vans is just beginning. Established companies such as Volvo and Freightliner already have delivery vehicles in production. Large corporations such as Walmart and UPS are placing orders. Amazon has invested three-quarters of a billion dollars in a truck startup called Rivian.

Additional advantages of electric propulsion for trucks are the fact that electric motors have essentially one moving part and therefore require much lower maintenance costs and electricity is much cheaper than gasoline and diesel on a per-mile basis.

The ultimate advantage to all of us is that they are much, much cleaner even when charged from the grid as it is becoming increasingly clean. Local air quality is improved and greenhouse gas emissions are decreased.

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

Electric Vehicles – Nuts and Bolts

One of the biggest advantages of electric cars is that there are fewer of those nuts and bolts. Also no oil, coolants, belts, transmissions et al. The fewer moving parts in the drive train, the longer it will last, other things being equal. Although electric cars are now more costly on the front end, the much lower maintenance and fuel cost result in lower cost over the long run.

The cost to own and operate a vehicle is the ultimate determinant for a lot of folks, but after that are a few other things about electric cars, one being fueling and the storage of the fuel. We’re talking about charging batteries. The unit of energy for electric cars is kiloWatt-hour (kWhr.) A fully charged battery pack will hold a certain number of kWhrs, (a Chevy Bolt battery pack will hold 60 kWhr) the more the battery pack will hold, the farther you can travel, just like a bigger fuel tank gets you farther.

How efficient the electric propulsion is in miles per kwhr is important A small to medium electric sedan can be expected to get about four miles per kWhr with all the caveats which influence an internal combustion engine (ICE.) Generally, the faster you drive, the poorer is your mileage. Colder weather and strong headwinds affect electric and ICE-powered cars alike. The United States EPA has made it easier to compare the efficiency of gas and electric cars. For electric vehicles, the EPA provides a number, miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) which allows a direct fuel efficiency comparison. For mid-sized electric sedans, the mileage is greater than100+ MPGe.

With a mileage that is three to four times better for an electric vehicle over an ICE, it will cost you one-third to one-quarter of the cost of buying gasoline for a given distance. One of the few drawbacks of electric cars is charging time, which varies depending on the charging technology.
The simplest way to charge an electric car is to plug it into a wall outlet. This will charge slowly because 110-volt outlets run at a minimal current. To fully charge an average electric vehicle will take a day or more at a wall outlet. For topping off a battery or for short errands around town this is sufficient. For longer trips, it is better to install a 220-watt charge station. This is referred to as a level II charger. These will fully charge a battery overnight.

If you’re ready for that two-week vacation with the family you will need to find level III chargers, just like you need to find gas stations along the way. Now it gets a little messier. Different vehicles have different connector plugs so you have to be sure you find the right kind of charger station. A small to mid-sized electric sedan can fully recharge in about one half an hour. A road trip in an electric vehicle will necessitate stopping every three to four hours for one half an hour. Enough time to stretch your legs, go to the restroom and get a bag of chips and a cold drink. As battery technology continues to improve, the distance you can go will increase, and the charging time decrease. Bon Voyage.

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

Super-Rich Socialists

Quick, what countries have the most billionaires? Not surprisingly the United States leads the pack. What you may not have thought of as second in line is China. Yes, that China. That Communist China. Sacre bleu! How can that be? Second in line after the United States. This is not too strange because both the US and China have large populations, about 330 million and 1.2 billion people respectively.

A better measure is billionaires per capita and now the ratings are drastically different. On this basis, we drop to thirteenth. Among the countries that top us are several Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Sweden, and Iceland. These countries are frequently referred to as socialist countries. They all have relatively high tax rates, yet they best us in terms of the number of super-rich. So much for the “only in America” trope.

The aforementioned countries with high tax rates have oodles of super-rich and at the same time provide outstanding social services including universal healthcare, education including higher education, parental leave, child and elder care, retirement, and vacation time just to name a few.

The OECD countries (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) have an average tax rate (revenue as a fraction of GDP) of thirty-four percent. Sweden has a rate of forty-three percent and the United States a meager twenty-four percent (total taxes for US, state, and local.) Sweden, with a tax rate nearly twice that of the United States has twice as many billionaires. Norway, with a whopping tax rate per GDP of fifty-five percent, has more billionaires. At the same time these Scandinavian countries with more billionaires than we, have a more equitable distribution of resources within the country as indicated by the GINI index.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that low taxes should produce more super-rich, but that is not necessarily the case when OECD countries are compared. How about among the states? New Jersey has the highest total tax rate in the country, yet has the second-highest number of millionaires. Mississippi has the least number of millionaires and a relatively low tax rate. There are of course exceptions. Alaska has the tenth highest number of millionaires but a very low tax rate. This can be explained by the oil wealth of the state.

In the last analysis, it appears that lower taxes don’t produce more wealth, in fact just the opposite is true. Countries with higher taxes that are dedicated to social welfare programs (raising all the boats so to speak) produce greater wealth.

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

Corvid, not COVID

COVID is a pandemic disease, Corvid is a family of birds of quite high intelligence. In terms of the brain to body weight ratio, they are intermediate between great apes and humans. Corvids are globally distributed and include crows, magpies, Jays, and others. The family Corvidae includes the genus Corvus – crows and their larger cousins the ravens.

Here in Arkansas, we have two the American crow and the slightly smaller and less numerous Fish crow. When you see a large group of crows, called a murder of crows it is most likely the American crow. Crows, like other birds are more often heard than seen, so it is good to learn their calls. The more numerous American crow is often heard in groups with lots of “caws” at once. The fish crow is more likely to be heard singly with a sort of nasal sounding cah or cah-hah, as it it is laughing at you.

Their intelligence is shown in their diet. Crows are quite adaptable omnivores. They can make a living by a number of means, from roadkill to any number of crops and stored foodstuffs, hence they are notable agricultural pests. Even though they are counted as migratory birds and therefore have some federal protection, they can be hunted in Arkansas (September through February.) Possibly the second most intelligent animal on the planet can be hunted with no bag limits.

A broad range of tests shows the intelligence of crows, tests that require recognizing analogies. Tests that involve not just the use of tools, but the fabrication of tools specific to a particular task. Tests that require multiple steps. Tests that require facial (human) recognition. Examples abound.

A test of the ability to recognize analogies, similarity versus dissimilarity went like this: A crow was shown a picture of two symbols, similar such as two circles, or dissimilar, a circle and a cross. They were given two options for a food reward, either two similar symbols, two squares or dissimilar symbols, an oval and a star. They had to recognize analogous pairs, and they did so on the first try, no training needed. If they were shown a dissimilar pair, the food reward was indicated by another dissimilar pair but of different objects.

Tool fashioning was tested by requiring the crow to modify an object to become a useful tool. One test required a hook-like object to retrieve a reward. They were presented with several items including a piece of wire. Again with no training, they were able to figure out that the wire could be bent into a hook and use it to retrieve the reward.

Facial recognition was tested over a three year period. Students on campus wore a particular mask while capturing crows for banding. Over the next three years in the study, when the banded crows saw anyone wearing the same mask they aggressively mobbed the masked person, even if that person was in a crowd. The banded crows were also able to recruit crows that had not been banded and hence had no reason to see the masked person as a threat. The moral of the story – crows are really smart and they can hold a grudge, for years.

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

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.