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.

Politics and Statehood

Congress has the power to create new states and the bar is not high, at least according to the constitution:

“New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the congress.”

That’s it. In practice, things have been more complex. Several statehood applications have been rejected. Sequoia would have been a state, basically to give statehood to Native American tribes in what is now Oklahoma. Deseret would have been a state encompassing much of the inter-mountain west but was likewise never approved by congress.

Congressional approval of statehood requires only a simple majority vote, no supermajorities, no participation by other state legislatures, just a simple majority vote in congress. Of course, the president could veto the enabling legislation which would require an override vote requiring two-thirds majorities in both bodies.

In the past, the Republican and Democratic parties have worked to some degree to compromise on objectives but in our current political environment that doesn’t seem to be the case. So why a discussion of statehood now? Raw political power, in particular control of the majority in the Senate.

Currently, a minority of voters in this country wield power over the majority. This is an undeniable fact of our electoral system. The current administration received about three million fewer votes than the opponents in 2016 and the current elected majority in the US Senate represent about seventeen million fewer voters than are represented by minority members.

I’ve done no polling but I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that most in the United States truly believe in democracy. It is a simple concept: everybody gets a vote and each of those votes is worth the same. Current polls show a majority favor abandoning the electoral college, up from polling in the past.

Currently, a minority of voters in this country wield the power over the majority. This is an undeniable fact of our electoral system. President Trump received about three million fewer votes than Clinton in 2016 and the current elected majority in the US Senate received about seventeen million fewer votes than were received by the minority.

If new states were created such as Washington DC and Puerto Rico, this could tip the balance of power in the Senate and electoral college. This is hardball but it is the game as it is played today. It needn’t be. Comity could prevail because the Senate makes its own rules. If the Senate dictated, they could simply require that passage of a bill would require enough votes in the Senate to actually represent the majority of voters.

Equity in the electoral college could be managed via a compact where the electors pledge to cast their votes for whomever wins the popular vote.

Perpetuation of the this system will only get worse if the current demographic changes continue to move people out of rural areas into more urban environments. When will “enough be enough?” How disparate will the system be before reform is recognized as necessary?

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

Fire and Floods

So far, this is the worst year ever for fires in the western states of California, Oregon, and Washington. The climate type for California lends its self to annual fires but global warming is making it worse because it is hotter and this time of year hotter is drier.

At the same time this is the worst season for hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and for the same reason – warmer air means warmer water means more energy to fuel storms. So far this year is bearing out NOAA’s prediction of an extremely active season.

Over four million acres have burned so far this year in the aforementioned states. Scores have died and more missing. Three million acres are on fire now and toxic smoke blankets thousands of square miles.

The result of global warming amplified weather damage here in the United States is annually hundreds of lives and billions of dollars of crop loss and property damage, far negating any minor improvements in a longer growing season and amplified CO2 for plant fertilization. Without serious effort, these costs will become insurmountable.

Of course, the real problem is the name – Global warming. For example, because of an extended heatwave in the northern climes, the ice north pole is melting faster than ever and the nearby tundra is thawing rapidly. At one point it was thought that a warmer tundra would promote moss growth which would form peat bogs. This could moderate the rate of climate change by removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and thus slowing atmospheric heat accumulation.

Ah. but life is not so simple. In parts of Siberia, the thawed, warmed, tundra is now burning. Fires in the Arctic are now the largest ever in recorded history. The Siberian taiga, what we call the boreal forests in the western hemisphere are burning and north of them the actual peat of the tundra. Underlying the tundra is permafrost of normally frozen organic-rich soil. As it thaws from the fires above it releases methane which may or may not catch fire as it is released. Regardless, methane itself is a greenhouse gas.

The release of the methane and carbon dioxide from the burning peat above the thawing permafrost will act in a vicious cycle known as positive feedback – as more greenhouse gasses are released, more heat is produced which causes the release of even more greenhouse gasses. All this of course increases the rate of climate change.

Global tropical storms, especially in the central and western pacific have had a somewhat average season with the exception of Cyclone Amphan which hit the Bay of Bengal, killing over a hundred and causing the greatest amount of damage, in excess of one hundred billion US dollars worth of damage in Bangladesh.

Obviously most eyes have been on the Covid-19 pandemic but the relentless planetary degradation due to global warming is marching on and cannot or should not be ignored. Heating of land magnifies the number of deadly heat waves and fires just like heating of water can produce more deadly storms.

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

The Anthropause

Scientists, especially those who deal with long time scales, tend to demark the passage of time that somehow defines a chunk of time. Eons are the longest time spans. The first is described as the Hadean, the first 600 million years defining the formation of the earth. Eons are divided into Eras, then Periods, Epochs, and Ages.

The Carboniferous Period as just one example is a roughly 60 million year period during which the planet was very warm and resulted in the formation of much of the coal on the planet due to photosynthetic removal of carbon from the atmosphere.

The time of dinosaurs is known as the Jurrasic Period, divided into three different Epochs. Our current Epoch is the Holocene which incorporates the time since the end of the last glaciation about 12,000 years ago. The current Age within this Epoch has come to be called the “Anthropocene” which roughly means the period of human influence.

Now, due to the global pandemic and resultant slowing of human activity, some have described our current time as an “Anthropause. “

Global tourism has been radically reduced not just in cultural centers such as cites but also in parks and natural areas. Locales normally frequented by humans have recently been left to wildlife as shown by both urban cameras and trail cams in rural areas. As a result, many wildlife scientists are scrambling to study the movements and actions of life in the temporary absence of humans.

A number of unique experiments are in progress. In Manitoba, Canada ornithologists are studying birds near now much quieter airports. Also, studies are examining low flying birds near highways to see if behavior is changing, albeit for short periods.

Ecologists at the Galapagos Marine Reserve are studying the movements of shy fish that now can move about in the absence of tourists engaged in diving and snorkeling. In the French Polynesian Islands, the impact of extended darkness near seaside hotels is being examined.

Even the open oceans are ripe for study. Reduced tourism and shipping may have an impact on whales. A research group off the coast of Monterrey, CA is collecting samples of whale blubber via specially designed crossbows. The blubber will reveal among other things the amount of cortisol in the animals, an indicator of stress.

Endangered species such as large mammals; rhinoceros, elephants, etc. may be at greater risk from poaching due to the absence of tourists. Although this research is happening during a time of great expense to both human life and the global economy, it is a once in a lifetime pause or at least hopefully so.

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

Firebombs and Fertilizer

On August 4, 2020 a warehouse in Beirut, Lebanon blew up. It was the same explosive that was used by the domestic terrorist who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. An even larger explosion destroyed much of the gulf port of Texas City in 1947, killing over five hundred. The explosive? Ammonium Nitrate, used mainly as a fertilizer but also as occasionally employed as an explosive.

Roughly ten to fifteen thousand years ago humanity began the transition from a hunter-gather tradition to agriculture. The transition is ongoing to this day but is complete for all but the most isolated primitive societies. One thing learned about agriculture early on is the plants do better with fertilizer – traditionally animal manure. It provides a micronutrient – Nitrogen, necessary for building protein.

Our atmosphere has an abundant supply but it is in a form that has limited use. Some plants such as legumes have nodules in their roots that contain bacteria that can convert Nitrogen from the atmosphere to the form, Nitrate, that plants can take up from the soil.

If you are growing grain however, and especially in a northern climate, additional Nitrogen from other sources is important. A rich source was Chilean Nitrate. The Atacama desert, the highest driest spot on earth has for countless ages accumulated Nitrate. The source is slow but atmospheric – lightening. Lightening converts atmospheric Nitrogen in very small amounts to nitrate, which in the dry desert slowly accumulates. But it is a slow high energy process. The Beagle of Charles Darwin’s fame visited the Atacama to assess the supplies of nitrate available.

Early in the twentieth century as the demand for nitrate accelerated, two German Chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch developed the chemistry to produce nitrate from atmospheric Nitrogen, a process called artificial fixation of Nitrogen. With natural gas as a source of energy and Hydrogen, atmospheric Nitrogen is reduced to Ammonia and thence converted to nitrate.

The chemists received the Nobel Prize for their work. Although the process has been used to this day to produce fertilizer, Ammonium Nitrate was used by Germany during WWI as an explosive. So what the heck turns fertilizer into an explosive? Concentration and pressure.

Whether the Ammonium Nitrate is for a bomb in a Ryder Truck, or a storage warehouse in Beirut the conditions are essentially the same. In Oklahoma City, the bomb was in barrels saturated with diesel fuel which increased the explosive density by solution. In Beirut, the extant condition was age. The material had been there far too long in a humid environment which again allowed some dissolution and hence concentration.

The explosion was triggered by a fire in an adjacent warehouse. The blast killed hundreds and made homeless hundreds of thousands more. It blew ships out of the water, demolished nearby grain silos, and created a several hundred feet wide crater.

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

The Broad Street Pump – Epidemiology

Resolution of the COVID crisis, that is the saving of health and lives will take several approaches. Disease in an individual is studied in a clinic and or hospital. Laboratory studies complement the data gathered in the clinic. For widespread disease study in an affected population, epidemiology is the appropriate tool.

The study of epidemiology is not unlike journalism where one attempts to weave a story around the common threads of illness in multiple individuals. It is the who, what, where, when, how of medicine. The tools of epidemiology range from good old gumshoe to powerful forensics such as DNA. Contact tracing is part of epidemiology. There is a rich history of epidemiology. Circa 400 Before the Current Era (BCE) Hippocrates noted in an essay “On Airs, Waters, and Places” that environmental and host factors may influence the course of diseases.

In the annals of epidemiology one study and one name stand out. London, England in the mid-1800s was racked by cholera outbreaks. The disease often ravaged poorer communities in flood-prone low-lying areas where fog would form. The “night air” was thought by some to be the source of cholera, called the miasma theory. John Snow, a physician thought otherwise.

He felt that it was more likely waterborne. He studied a particular outbreak in the summer of 1854. The surviving patients were in hospitals over a wide area, rather than localized. This in itself was unique. Dr. Snow with the help of Reverend Whitehead interviewed the various patients, determined where they lived, and then examined where they went on a daily basis. Essentially he took the role of a geographer to find how the paths of those impacted crossed.

Although the cholera victims lived at a distance of each other, the one commonality was their drawing drinking water from one pump – The Broad Street Pump. John Snow removed the handle from the Broad Street pump and ended the cholera epidemic. It turned out that this one well was contaminated with sewage. Cholera is waterborne. If exposure to contaminated water is stopped, the disease is stopped.

So what does epidemiology say about our current pandemic? It has revealed that our current pandemic most likely originated in a Wuhan wet market where a diverse number of different wild animals are kept for sale, even butchered on the spot. This strongly suggests and DNA studies help confirm that COVID-19 is a zoonotic, a disease formally in an animal that has “jumped” to humans. Other zoonoses include AIDS and Ebola.

Although the virus originated in Asia, the biggest outbreak, that in New York City, came through Europe on its way here. The virus is spread by droplets and/or aerosols of an infected individual which can travel several feet from just breathing but especially from sneezing or coughing. These droplets/aerosols are infectious when they contact mucus membranes of the mouth or nose.

The solution in the long term is vaccination but that is unlikely to be available until sometime next year. Until then the solution is to physically block transmission. Masks vary in their efficacy but just about any mask is better than no mask. Physical distancing works and the greater the distance the better. And wash your hands.

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

Hydrogen as an Renewable Fuel

The future of transportation, at least the clean air kind of transportation, will be powered by electricity. Fully electric cars are being manufactured by some companies most notably Tesla and most manufacturers have plans for them. Even big trucks such as semis are being developed to run on electric motors. Plug-in hybrids and simple hybrids utilize a combination of electric motors and Internal Combustion Engines (ICE) for greater fuel efficiency than straight ICE-powered vehicles.

Vehicles that use electricity for at least part of their motive power use batteries for onboard energy storage. These batteries can be charged from the grid for plug-in hybrids. Hybrids such as the Toyota Prius are charged on the fly by regeneration from braking or alternatively by charging from the ICE.

Under certain circumstances such as rail traffic, the electricity can be provided through the tracks or overhead wires. Depending on the country most to all rail traffic in Europe is powered by motors charged by overhead electric lines.

An as yet exploited alternative to batteries or electric lines are fuel cells powered by hydrogen. A fuel cell is a device which uses hydrogen as the fuel to be converted directly to electricity. The only product of the process is water.

Hydrogen as a fuel has several advantages. As noted it is “clean burning” the only product being water. Important for transportation is its very high energy density. For a given weight Hydrogen has about three times as much energy as gasoline and over 100 times as much as that stored in a battery used in electric vehicles.

Under normal conditions, what chemists call Standard Temperature and Pressure, Hydrogen is a gas but it can be pressurized to decrease its volume. The biggest drawback to Hydrogen as compared say to a fossil fuel is that it can’t be pulled from the air or mined from the ground, it has to be created. Currently, the cheapest way is to strip the Hydrogen from natural gas. Alternately, it can be made from water via a process called electrolysis.

If the energy to make the electricity needed is from wind or solar, it is a way of making a storable form of renewable fuel. And that is a really big area of research. Of course one can always just use solar/wind-generated electrical energy to do electrolysis, but there are inefficiencies.

Two areas of research are microbial biomass conversion and direct photocatalytic production. Microbial production of Hydrogen comes from engineered bacteria that produce Hydrogen when fed. If the feed is something such as fructose made from corn, then the process is renewable.

Likely the best method is the latter, photocatalytic production. Some materials, Titanium Dioxide is one example, when placed in water and exposed to sunlight cleave the water releasing Hydrogen and Oxygen. The problem is low efficiency. Intense research is examining a welter of more exotic materials that are of much greater efficiency.

Currently, Toyota is the only manufacturer selling a Hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. In the United States, they are for sale only in California and Hawaii, and even in these locations, Hydrogen fueling facilities are few and far between.

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

Coronavirus and Science

As a scientist, I find it difficult to rationalize how some reject knowledge gained by a simple process of being careful about how things come to be known. Science is not some arcane unyielding body of knowledge but rather a process of ensuring that what we learn about something represents reality. There are numerous definitions of science but my favorite comes from the Nobel laureate Richard Feynman: science is what we do to keep from fooling ourselves.

The value of wearing a mask and social distancing as an effective means of disrupting the transmission of a serious disease comes from an understanding of the germ theory as shown by Louis Pasteur around 1860. This is nothing new and certainly not political. One hundred and sixty years of medical wisdom supports the fact that disrupting the transmission of an infectious agent is the way to prevent the spread of the disease. In this case, the infectious agent, SARS CoV-2 (the virus), may be new but how to address it’s spread is not.

Covid-19 (the disease caused by the virus) can go away but not by magic, rather by an informed and compassionate public taking the right steps to break the chain of transmission. Here in the United States, a relatively ill-informed public took half-hearted measures and then abandoned them too soon. New cases are on the rise both here in Arkansas and across the United States. More people are becoming ill and more people are dying because too many reject science. Too many people are rejecting hundreds of years of medical wisdom.

The leadership and citizens of much of the technologically advanced world get it. Life in New Zealand is back to normal as they are free of any new cases of Covid-19. The member states of the European Union have a larger population but hundreds of times fewer new cases. Meanwhile here in the United States, we are see-sawing in and prematurely out of closing down businesses to prevent disease transmission.

There is a furious global effort to develop a vaccine to combat Covid-19, but that can take a year or more to properly develop, test, and distribute. This could be the solution but again, reluctance to accept science stands in the way. Polling shows that up to fifty percent of the public will reject vaccination.

There is a long line of scientists; Pasteur, Jenner, Koch, Hooke, Harvey, Paracelsus, Vesalius, and on and on, and many more. More modern medical luminaries such as Reed and Salk and up to the present – Dr. Anthony Fauci . They all have provided the knowledge as to how we should address the pandemic if we care.

There is no alternate host, no reservoir for the coronavirus, it only exists in active cases. Stop transmission, and the disease goes away. It really is that simple.

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