Dark Skies

The Russellville City Council has recently taken a look at providing lighting for the four interstate interchanges. Studies show that the incidence of nighttime accidents can be reduced by better lighting. A study in Minneapolis showed that the ratio of nighttime to daytime automobile accidents at intersections is reduced by twelve percent by providing intersection lighting.

The Council approved half a million dollars for the project. To illuminate the entire interstate corridor through Russellville would cost on the order of two million dollars. Reducing accidents is a good thing but it comes at the cost of dark skies.

NASA has published numerous composite photos showing just how illuminated the planet really is. The eastern half of the United States, the west coast, western Europe, Japan, even India are clearly outlined by lighting. In one photo from over a decade ago, Russellville shows its own little speck on the nighttime.

With the exception of the extremes of the polar regions and the abyssal plains in the ocean, all life is adapted to regular day-night cycles. Disruption of the circadian rhythm enforced by day-night cycling can have effects on everything from plants to humans, especially humans.

Franz Halberg in 1959 coined the term circadian, from the Latin words “circa” (about) and “dies” (day). The rhythm is provided by the day-night environmental cue, called “zeitgebers, ” German for time givers. Time rhythms in animals are entangled with biochemistry through the production of the hormone melatonin produced by the pituitary gland.

Although sales of melatonin as a sleep aid is a multi-million dollar business, there is scant evidence of any effect. At least when properly controlled studies are considered. What there is strong evidence of is the untoward effects disruption of the circadian rhythm on humans.

Disrupted circadian rhythms due to shift work have long been known to have negative consequences. Elevated health threats include cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, ulcers, and depression. Most obvious is the increase of work-related accidents from shift work schedules.

Light pollution is not a new phenomenon, records from the 1800s describe birds flying into lighthouses. A current problem is bird kills from illuminated buildings and especially cell towers.

Among insects, two effects have been observed. Nocturnal pollinators are less effective as artificial lighting confuses the pollinators and makes finding the flowers more difficult. Additionally, predators such as bats find easy pickings among the confused nocturnal insects.

The advent of Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) has made the problem of light pollution worse for two reasons. Because LEDs produce light more cheaply, their use is expanding. Also, the wavelength of light produced by LEDs seems to cause greater behavioral changes in animals compared to the Sodium Vapor lights used for street lighting until recently.

The city council should think long and hard about just how much light is needed and what type of lighting is employed to minimize negative environmental effects.

Seas are Rising Faster

Predictions about global warming by the experts come in three flavors. First, the warnings we are being given are overblown and we need do nothing. Option two is that the warnings are real and we need to act to mitigate climate change. Option three is that scientists are being conservative about their predictions and things are actually worse than predicted. By worse, I mean all the negative outcomes are getting worse faster than anticipated.

By one measure, sea level rise, it appears that option three is in the works. The previous predictions as to the rate of sea level rise seem to have underestimated the actual rate. Scientific studies conducted around the world show that sea level rise over the past century amounted to about a 19 centimeter (7.5 inches.) Recent studies show however that the rate of rise is quickening.

The rate of rise for the 20th century was 1.7 millimeters (mm) per year. Since 1993, however, the observed rate is 3.2 mm per year. At this rate sea levels will rise over a foot this century. People alive today will oversee hundreds of thousands of people driven from their island homes in the South Pacific. Possibly millions more in low lying coastal areas such as Bangladesh will become displaced, exacerbating the problems of human migrations.

The above is predicated on sea level rise being constant throughout the 21st century. There is no indication that that is true. Sea level rise is accelerating. Rates observed today will increase in the future. That foot of rise will be happening much sooner than the end of this century. This is a real existential threat to people everywhere, not only those displaced but also to those who have to deal with the displaced migrants.

The threat is not just from submerged land, higher tides and storm surges can cause salt infiltration which threatens fresh water supplies and cropland. The rest of the world recognizes this and has begun to act. The governments of every nation on earth came to an agreement as to the actions needed, essentially the decarbonization of economies. We here in the United States, however, decided not to participate. Even though we represent only five percent of the world’s population, we produce almost a quarter of the world’s pollution.

Rather than lead the world with our science and technology in finding sustainable energy solutions, we go blithely on our way dragging the rest of the world down.

The issue is real, the science is sound, and settled. Science is not infallible but it is self-correcting. There is not a global cabal of scientists lying to us. Science just doesn’t work that way. Yes, there are occasional errors and even outright fraud. We know this because of, you guessed it – science. Let me explain with a personal anecdote.

As a young graduate student studying the shapes of certain molecules, I noticed a significant error in the data of a senior scientist at another institution based on work I had done with related materials. I contacted him and to make a long story short, he wrote back thanking me for finding his error. How cool is that? A grad student gets to correct a senior scientist. That is the way science works, if you’re right you’re right.

Keep the Families Together

Yep, he went there. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the difference between the United States and the Nazis was that the Nazis were trying to keep the (Jewish) migrants in while his office is trying to keep (mainly Central American) migrants out. That’s a difference? Really? Keeping those fleeing persecution and violence IN or OUT is cruel in the extreme. It goes beyond inhumane, we treat our pets better. Who takes children from their parents as a threat, as a bargaining chip in negotiations over legislation?

President Trump has made numerous false and inflammatory claims in order to rally support for the construction of his border wall and the cruel treatment of migrants here already. He has claimed that we are being flooded with illegal migrants. The reality is that immigration has been down dramatically over the past couple of decades.

Trump has claimed that the immigrants are violent “murderers and rapists.” The reality is that immigrant populations are less violent not more than documented citizens. Yes, there are violent gangs such as MS-13, but they are the exception, not the rule. In science we have a saying, anecdotes are not a substitute for data.

Trump has disingenuously claimed that he hates separating children from their parents but must under the law. As several senior Republican Senators have pointed out, he could end his policy with a phone call. Separating children from their parents as a matter of enforcement is a policy, his, which could be ended in the blink of an eye.

Even though he claimed while campaigning in 2016 “I alone can fix the problem,” he continues to blame the Democrats for the law and even asks that they, the minority party, fix it.

He claims that the immigrants are here taking our jobs, yet unemployment is at a near all time low. His lies even cross oceans. He recently tweeted that due to Angela Merle’s immigration policy that crime in Germany is up, when in fact the crime rate is down.

Evangelical Christians are at the core of Trump’s support, all the while faith leaders are calling for an end to his inhumane policy of separating children from their parents. Leadership in the United Methodist Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the United States Catholic Bishops all recently said no to the policy.

With all the outcry from both left and right support for Trump’s policies remain strong even in the face of the knowledge that mistreating children is abhorrent. There seems to remain a level of racism in this country sensitive to claims that the immigrants aren’t people, they’re animals. Asylum seekers aren’t families, they’re murderers and rapists.

We should be working in Central America to to change the conditions which are driving refugees out of their homes to seek asylum within our borders. We should be working to assist asylum seekers, not tearing their families apart.

Have we forgotten that we are a nation of immigrants? We are over 325 million strong. We are ethnically, religiously, and politically diverse. We are arguably the most economically and militarily powerful nation on earth. Morally and ethically we can do better.

Bezoar Stones

Bezoar Stones also called mad stones, have a considerable history in American folklore. They were thought to have the power to treat or neutralize poisons or venoms in wounds. Those wounds may be from insect stings, poisonous plants, snake bites, and even the bites of rabid animals. Treatment consisted of simply holding the stone up against the wound.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac published a story about mad stones in a 2010 edition. The story referred to a number of instances dating to the 19th and into the 20th century where the stones were used for snake bites and especially bites from rabid dogs.

Also clear from these stories is that the stone only worked if obtained directly from an animal or was received as a gift. Buying and/or selling destroyed the power of the stone, and if stolen would actually cause harm to the thief.

Bezoars are usually golf ball sized concretions of hair and calcium salts taken from the gastrointestinal tract of ruminants. Farm animals such as goats and sheep and wild deer are often a source. Hair is difficult to digest, especially by ruminants. The material can persist in the gut of these animals for months to years. Gradually calcium salts bind to a wad of hair. Peristaltic action, the muscular churning in the GI tract, forces these masses in to the shape of a ball.

The name bezoar is taken from Persian, Padzahr. This word and the concept date to the classical period of Persia, around 500 BCE (Before the Current Era), or over 2000 years ago. The Persian word means “protective against poison” A Persian pharmacopeia of the time listed bezoars as effective in the treatment of not only insect stings and snake bites, they were also considered an antidote to various mineral and vegetable poisons.

By the 16th/17th century their purported efficacy had extended to treating diseases or conditions from epilepsy to smallpox and bubonic plague. Bezoars came to be prized possessions in Europe at the time. For one special use, the stones were encased in ornate gold cage-like containers complete with a several inch long chain attached. These could then be dipped into a goblet of wine for instance, to remove any and all added poisons.

Certain Europeans, Catherine de Medici, and Lucrezia Borgia to name just two were thought to be heartless poisoners who gained and held power by poisoning their political enemies. Poisoning at the time was somewhat of an art. Arsenic was often the poison of choice, and the better poisoners knew how to disguise the poison to make it less detectable.

Interestingly there is a good reason to think that in this particular case of poisoning by Arsenic, the bezoars may have worked to prevent poisoning. Nerd alert – chemistry digression. The physical composition of a bezoar includes hair, and hair is loaded with a class of chemical compounds known as sulfides. The presence of sulfides makes for the foul odor when hair is burned. More importantly however, the sulfides are known to chemically bind to many heavy metals including Arsenic.

For a goblet of wine with Arsenic, adding the bezoar stone could adsorb the poison. Remove the stone and remove the poison.

Wrong Way President

Republicans have long been known as the party of business, both big and small. The party that believes in the free market. The party that doesn’t want government picking winners and losers. The GOP platform statement is unambiguous. “Government should not play favorites among energy producers.“

Recently Trump has floated a plan to order the electrical grid operators to buy power from coal and nuclear powered electrical generators. Even though power from natural gas-fired plants is cheaper and cleaner. Even though power from wind turbines and utility-scale photovoltaic systems(solar) is far cleaner and now cheaper than coal-fired plants.

His argument which will drive up the cost of electricity is a somewhat poorly disguised attempt to prop up industries whose time has past. Twenty-five coal plants have closed since he began as president. The two largest coal plants here in Arkansas are in negotiations for closure within a decade. There hasn’t been a new order for a nuclear plant in several decades.

Meanwhile, wind and solar power are rapidly expanding. Clarksville just added its own solar array and Entergy is building two major solar plants.

The plan to help the coal and nuclear industries is couched as a national defense emergency, and if this order were to be enacted would employ a regulation normally used to respond to national crises such as weather-related disasters.

Coal and nuclear plants are referred to as baseload plants. They’re designed to be turned on and stay on, at full power. It is Trump’s position that replacing these baseload plants with renewables will somehow make the electrical grid less resilient.

Nope. Numerous studies show that a broad mix of renewable energy supplies on the grid leads to greater stability. Two countries, Germany and Denmark, have far larger percentages of their electrical energy generated by wind and solar and have an order of magnitude fewer outages than the United States. This may be in part due to better investments in the grid infrastructure, but it certainly shows that renewables don’t hurt.

The people who really know what’s best are the grid operators themselves. They view today’s grid in better shape than ever in terms of reliability. Trade groups for the oil and gas industry joined with environmental groups to issue a joint statement claiming that the plan was legally indefensible and guaranteed to raise the cost of electricity to consumers.

A similar but more subtle plan was pursued last year by Rick Perry, administrator of the Energy Department. Perry requested the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to guarantee a financial return for any power plant that could store on site ninety days worth of fuel. This would, of course, mean coal and nuclear plants. The FERC earlier this year unanimously denied the request.

Trump, the purported deal maker, would be in this case increasing the cost of electricity for consumers. He would be reversing the trend towards cleaner air and lower greenhouse gas emissions. And finally, the plan would only make worse the problem with high-level radioactive waste, an issue we haven’t been able to resolve after sixty years of commercial nuclear power production.

Amphibian Pandemic

One of the unfortunate hallmarks of the human condition is our purposeful or incidental reduction of biodiversity everywhere we go. Most obvious was the elimination of large herbivores from woolly mammoths to giant ground sloths. This makes a certain sense as they were prey species which fed our rapid expansion across the planet.

Global warming, by forcing changes to the climate, impacts all life on the planet. Fauna are indirectly threatened by simple reduction of suitable habitat. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has identified habitat loss as a main threat to 85% of all species described in the IUCN’s “Red List” (those species officially classified as “Threatened” and “Endangered”).

A common example is when forested areas are cleared and converted to agricultural use. The destruction of diverse forests in southeast Asia for use as palm oil plantations threatens everything from Orangutans to Tigers.

An incidental apocalypse is now occurring with amphibians worldwide. The class Amphibia has existed for over 300 million years. Today frogs, toads, salamanders, and the lesser known caecilians are dispersed worldwide and exist in a number in niches from rain forests to deserts. A northern most amphibian is the wood frog of Alaska which literally freezes up during the winter. When the weather warms it thaws and goes about its business.

Compounding threats to amphibians from habitat loss and climate change is a rapidly expanding pandemic of a Chytrid fungus, specifically Batrachorchytrium dendrobatidis (BD.) The fungus has been know for over a century in parts of east Asia and Africa but only in the past few decades has it spread worldwide.

There are several hypotheses for the mechanism of dispersion. In the 1930s a British researcher by the name of Lancelot Hogben, hence the eponymous Hogben test, found that injecting urine from a pregnant woman into the the African Clawed Frog induce the frog to lay eggs. The test was faster and didn’t require the sacrifice of the animal as was the case in the rabbit test. It was used on several continents from the 1940s to 1960s.

Recent study of the DNA of numerous samples suggests the origin of the BD dispersion began on the Korean peninsula in the early 1950’s. The Korean war, with the massive movement of men and materiel in and out of the area could have dispersed the fungus. The fungus can easily be transported on any kind of moist material, in addition to the amphibians themselves.

The global trade in amphibians for foods and pets is probably responsible for the dispersion of new strains which may be even more toxic. BD grows on the skin of amphibians. Amphibian skin is responsible for much metabolic activity such gas exchange. Essential electrolytes, Sodium and Potassium are also exchanged across the skin and it is a disruption of electrolyte balance that kills them.

Of the roughly 7000 amphibian species, 200 have recently been extirpated, and another 2000 are threatened. Nearly half of all amphibian species are in decline. Defenders of Wildlife here in the United States has called for the Fish and Wildlife service to ban the import of amphibians.

The moral of this story is that we ought to leave the critters be. Transporting them from hither to you could very well accelerate the amphibian pandemic.


In the mid -1960s, IBM corporation introduced the S/360 computer. This computer is thought of as ushering in the modern computer age. IBM executives, especially Thomas Watson, Jr, literally bet the company on this one product – and won. The machine and subsequent later generation models were widely accepted and employed in both science and industry. The term computer systems originated to a large degree because of the interoperability of the IBM machines.

The 360 and its ancillary input devices such as card readers, and keyboards, output printers, card punch machines, and tape drives for storage could fill a good a good sized room.

Compare that with a current model cell phone which are hundreds of thousands of times smaller, yet have computational powers billions of times that of the IBM 360. In fact, one of today’s cell phones has millions of times the computational power of all the NASA computers used to develop and guide the Apollo Missions to the moon. And a cell phone, besides its communications functions, does so much more – cameras for still and motion photography, mapping functions from GPS signals, and an ever expanding group of applications.

This is without doubt the best example of miniaturization, ever more power in an increasingly smaller package. It certainly isn’t the only example however. About the same time as the figurative launch of the IBM 360 was the literal launch of the first commercial communications satellite, Telstar. This satellite, built by Bell Labs and utilized by a consortium of communications companies delivered phone and television signals across the Atlantic.

The satellite itself was about 3 feet in diameter and weighed a couple of hundred pounds. The signal strength was weak so the ground station which handled the signals was huge. The antenna dish needed to track the satellite was housed in a radome the size of a 14 story office building. The elliptical orbit of the satellite meant that it was capable of only 20 minutes transmission time out of its 2.5 hour orbit of the planet.

Recently a group of “cubesats” were launched. These mini satellites are smaller than a thin paperback book. Only four were launched but the plan is to launch hundreds of these “space bees” to be placed in geostationary orbits around the world. Their purpose is to tie the Internet of Things together in one massive globally connected group of devices. Radios to refrigerators, toasters to televisions, all will interconnect via the space bees.

The medical field is seeing the application of miniature devices. A device the size of a pack of chewing gum has been designed to monitor several blood components and send the data via a Bluetooth connection. Right now device is designed for hospital use collecting data from drainage tubes employed after surgery. In the not to distant future and with continuing miniaturization, I can envision devices the size or grains of rice circulating in our bodies and sending back information on any number of biological parameters.

Miniature medical devices may go far beyond data collection and be used to correct conditions. Marrying tiny electronic devices with molecular scale creations such as antibodies will not only be able to detect but even correct numerous disease conditions. While siting on your couch or running at the beach, your phone signals you that devices within you have detected malignant liver cells. Not to worry – there’s an app for that! Problem found and corrected.

Opioid Addictions

Once again, and for all the wrong reasons, we are at the top of a list. Arkansas leads the nation in childhood abuse of opioids. Basically, our teenagers consume more prescription pills and various street drugs such as heroin than those of any other state.

Opioids include drugs, whether legal or not that are derived from the Opium poppy – codeine and morphine, also semi-synthetic drugs that are made by chemical conversion of opium – notably oxycodone and hydrocodone. Fentanyl and related compounds (congeners) are made completely synthetically.

The only difference among these drugs is relative potency, the amount (dose) necessary to produce a given effect. The range is incredibly broad. Fentanyl and its congeners are hundreds, even thousands of times as potent as morphine. Emergency personnel have been poisoned by simply touching pills. The adage “one pill can kill” is frighteningly true.

The death rate due to this epidemic is rising and seems to cross all lines – red states and blue states, rich states and poor states. The top ten states for death rates include both the poorest and richest states based on income.

In some states there seems to be a concerted effort to oversell prescription drugs. Over a recent 5 year period, 780 million pills were shipped to West Virginia. Its population is only 1.8 million. Every man, woman and child received the equivalent of over 400 pills! It is no wonder that they lead the nation in opioid overdose deaths.

The numbers are no less staggering in Arkansas. In 2016 physicians prescribed 236 million opioid pills. That’s about 80 pills per person. Almost half of all adults filled one or more prescriptions that year. In Arkansas, someone’s son or daughter dies on a near daily basis from an opioid overdose.

A coalition of cities and counties in Arkansas recently sued dozens of makers and distributors of opioids, arguing that the companies should bear the cost of drug abuse in the state. Whereas this should help with prescription drugs it may drive those already addicted towards street drugs which are much more dangerous due to the unreliability of dosages and the vagaries of intravenous drug use.

Some states have begun needle exchanges to reduce the secondary infection rate due to shared needles. New York City has gone so far as to create safe sites where clean needles and a safe location for injection are provided.

A silver lining to the opioid cloud may be about to appear in Arkansas. Studies consistently show that states with medical marijuana have much lower rates of opioid overdose deaths. Researchers examined medical marijuana laws and death certificate data in all 50 states between the years of 1999 and 2010. At the time, only 13 states had medical marijuana laws. It was obvious that the rates of fatal opioid overdoses were lower in states that had legalized medical marijuana.

The effect seems to be due to the lower use of legal opioids among those who have access to marijuana. Ironically the federal government classifies marijuana as a schedule one chemical or substance – drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

Sustainability is the Future

The United States became the dominant world power by the conclusion of World War II. In essence, we were the last man standing, ie, the only real industrial power not impacted by war. In fact, the war brought us out of a depression and stimulated our industrial might. Additionally, we had vast resources of fossil fuels to run the factories.

To this day we are still the largest economy on the planet, but no longer the leader in some of the technologies that will be important, even determinative, in the future. Our utilization of fossil fuels in the past brought us to the top but continuing to rely on then in the future will bring us down.

Whether we recognize the inherent dangers of global warming and the need to decarbonize our energy mix, most of the rest of the world does. President Trump is trying to move us in the wrong direction by abandoning international agreements such as the Paris Accord. He has ordered a cutback of fuel efficiency standards, opened vast areas of public land for fossil fuel exploitation, and generally thumbed his nose at any and all previous measures meant to deal with global warming.

Clean, sustainable energy is the future. Economies built on this recognition will in the long run prosper. Although we pioneered electricity generation from wind, China has blown past us in installed capacity with over a third of the world’s installed power. The European Union led by Denmark, Germany and the Iberian peninsula, is now producing more than the US.

The latest big move into wind power is the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The UK has moved rapidly to install offshore turbines and now has more offshore capacity than the rest of the world combined. Scotland leads the world in the fraction of electricity demand it meets with wind power. An astonishing 53% of all electricity production comes from wind turbines. In the US, it is 6%. And they are not resting on their laurels. The UK will soon be home to the largest wind installation project with a capacity of 1,800 megawatts off the Yorkshire coast. The largest in the US the Alta Wind energy project with 1,548 megawatts.

This wind project will be powered by 150 turbines each generating 12 megawatts of power. Each turbine will provide enough energy to run 16,000 homes. These giants stand over 800 feet tall, almost 3 times the height of the Statue of Liberty.

A similar story holds for solar. China leads with about 25% of total world production. The US is fourth after China, Japan, and Germany. In terms of the fraction of total production, the US falls to tenth place with only 1.4% of our total production. Italy leads with 7.5% of there total.

As stated earlier, the countries which deploy the greatest fraction of their energy production via sustainables will lead the world if for no other reason than a decreasing demand for a diminishing resource is a good thing. As important however, is the advantage of leading in the development of tomorrows technology.

Every wind turbine and every solar panel also means cleaner air and reduced global warming potential. Did I mention that the Arkansas Public Service Commission is likely to soon make a ruling which will disfavor home solar arrays? MAGA, Making America Grate (on our nerves) Again.

Happiness is sharing

I think we can all agree that we know what happiness is and when we and or our friends are happy, but can happiness be measured for whole countries? And when we talk about happiness for a whole population, just what are we talking about.

For individuals., important things like being in a stable and loving relationship, having a secure and fulfilling job, being secure in the fact that if you get sick or have an accident that you will be able to afford proper care all come to mind. Other factors include access to education, freedom of activities, a comfortable retirement, and importantly protection from violence and even political coercion.

A number of organizations from the United Nations to the Gallup poll, using survey and economic data come to the same conclusions: Scandinavia wins every time, Canada beats the USA which is in about the middle in happiness, and at the bottom despotic, and especially war-torn countries.

Factors which gather all this input into a simple number are the Gini indices for wealth and income, especially income. The Gini index is a way to put a number, between 0 and 1, on the distribution of some asset. It is usually applied as noted to wealth or income but can be applied other things. If something, wealth for instance, is held by very few or even one and nobody else has any then the index would be at or near 1. On the other hand, if it is evenly distributed throughout the population, then the value would be near 0.

Back to happiness. It should be obvious that the happiest countries all favor socialism in the broadest meaning of the word. Economic systems in countries are organized somewhere between capitalism and socialism, although neither exist in the purest form anywhere in the world.

Even in capitalistic United States we have socialism in the form of social security, medicare and medicaid, and even more mundane structures such as police and fire protection. Rigidly socialist North Korea has some capitalism by way of street vendors who sell things like food and cheap commodities.

The strongest objection by capitalists to socialism is that it throttles innovation. Why work hard or try to create wealth when the government just takes so much in taxes? The happiest people live in the Scandinavian countries which are all are relatively socialistic. They also have relatively high gini (wealth) indices. The people of Denmark, frequently ranked as the happiest, has a gini index comparable to the United States.

Where we and the countries with the happiest people vary is the gini index for income. Income is much more evenly dispersed in the happy countries. This is net income which includes not only cash payments for work but also the social welfare network which provides healthcare, education, retirement, a host of other services which enrich life.

The happiest people in the world live in countries that have low gini indices for income but relatively high indices for wealth. This means that the largest number of people have sufficient income to ensure that they don’t have to worry, while at the same time allowing wealth to accumulate to those who seek it.