Monthly Archives: December 2017

Trump’s attack on the Environment

If one sentence could encapsulate the Trump administration’s approach the environment it would be “ Modern air is a little too clean for optimum health.” This is a statement made by Robert Phalen, a Trump appointee to the Science Advisory Board, Environmental Protection Agency. Trump and his minions seem to be working to reverse the work of the previous decades in protecting the environment and the health of the planet.

Although much of his effort has been focused on reversing Obama era regulations, the focus is actually much broader. Fossil fuels producers and various and sundry extractive industries are favored without the burdensome regulations meant to protect our health and the environment.

In 2007 during the Bush presidency, the supreme court ruled that Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is a pollutant and the EPA has the responsibility to regulate it. CO2 is the major greenhouse gas driving climate change. And what is Trump’s response? He appointed Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier, to head the EPA.

Trump withdrew from the Paris Accords, an agreement among every country on the planet that recognizes the reality of anthropogenic global warming. This can’t be overstated. Every single country, besides us, be they capitalist, communist, socialist, monarchy, or whatever agree that actions must be taken to prevent or at least mitigate climate change caused by global warming. Everybody but us. Every scientific body including those in the United States. Friends and enemies alike, every single government, but us.

President Obama created the Clean Power Plan, meant to gradually but substantially wean us off the use of fossil fuels in electrical power generation. In October Trump proposed repealing the clean power plan in favor of increased use of coal. Ironically deregulating the use of coal will most likely have no effect to “bring back coal” because it is economics, not regulations, that has caused such a decline in its use. They will, however, have the effect of delaying the development of sustainable energy production from wind and solar.

Trump has also proposed a repeal of the methane rule. Methane, otherwise known as natural gas is a potent greenhouse gas in its own right. The methane rule was meant to tighten regulations concerning its release to the atmosphere during production and distribution. Sadly, it is cheaper to be sloppy and allow fugitive emissions that contribute to global warming.

In what must be one of the worst-timed deregulatory actions, Trump repealed a construction standard meant to reduce damage from flooding only days before the worst flooding ever in the Huston area. The standard would have added less than 1 % to the costs of construction in flood-prone areas but saved much in the long run.

One accounting suggests the Trump has repealed or rolled back 60 different rules that protect our health and the environment. These actions are out of step with most Americans. Polling consistently shows that three-quarters of the electorate favor increased environmental protection whereas less than a quarter feel the current efforts to protect the environment have gone too far.

Scientific Serendipity

Serendipity is a term for discovery by dumb luck. The word was created by Horace Walpole in 1754 based on a Persian tale about the Three Princes of Serendip, who wandered through life continually stumbling across good luck. Much of scientific discovery has come about through serendipity rather than forethought.

This is not to say that scientific training is immaterial. Noble Prize wining scientist Louis Pasteur, inventor of the eponymous process- pasteurization, said “fortune favors the prepared mind.” Scientific discoveries whether by luck or purpose both require scientific training to ask the right questions, and properly interpret the findings of investigations, especially if the result is unexpected. The following stories are just a few taken from physics, and chemistry, and biology.

The detection of radio waves from space began in the 1930s. Sources of the radio waves (microwaves) varied but was first observed from the Milky Way galaxy. In 1964 two astronomers at Bell Labs were testing a new sensitive radio antenna but could could not find the cause of a constant hum. At one point they thought it was due to a pair of pigeons that had taken up residence in the horn of their antenna. They cleared it out but the hum remained, regardless of where they pointed it. Unbeknownst to them at the time, they had discovered the Cosmic Microwave Background, a form of radiation that provides the best evidence for the creation of our universe 13.8 billion years ago.

In the mid 19th century dyes for fabrics were few and expensive, being obtained from natural sources. Royal Purple, so called as only the royals could afford it, was a dye obtained from a sea snail. A young chemist in England had been charged with developing a synthesis of Quinine, used to treat malaria. He was not able to make Quinine, but during his investigations using coal tar as a starting material, he ended up making the first of what are called aniline dyes. This accidental discovery began a global industry.

In 18th century Italy a physician was performing experiments on frogs. He took a dissected leg which was held to the table with brass clips and began cutting with a steel scalpel. When the steel scalpel accidentally touched a brass clip it caused the frog’s leg to twitch. When dissimilar metals come in contact it can cause a electrical current, essentially a simple battery. The current that induced the twitch in the frog’s leg was the first evidence of an animal’s nervous system.

More modern examples involve a couple of synthetic sweeteners. Aspertame, possibly better know by the trade name Nutrasweet was discovered when a chemist produced it as an intermediate on the way to another more complex compound that was to be used to treat ulcers. When he went to make a notation in his lab book, he licked his finger to turn a page. He noticed the intense sweetness of the compound and a billion dollar industry ensued. Another sweetener, Splenda was also discovered by accident. A graduate student was asked to test a particular chlorinated compound. He misunderstood the instruction and came back to report the he tasted, not tested the compound and found it to be quite sweet.

Measuring Wealth

Currently, the top 2% hold over 50 % of the wealth in this country, and about the same holds true for the rest of the world. It hasn’t always been that way. A recent study published in Nature examined wealth distribution over time.

The most primitive cultures, stone age hunter/gatherer societies were quite egalitarian. Early agricultural societies were likewise egalitarian. The first large-scale shift to a wealthy class came with the domestication of animals. In early agriculture all labor was manual, an individual could only manage so much land. With a draft animal however, the amount of land that could be utilized greatly increased. Their study used archaeological records of the sizes of houses to create a Gini index of wealth distribution within various societies.

The Gini index is a number between 0 and 1. In a hypothetical society where the wealth is equally distributed the value is 0. At the other end of the spectrum, 1, would be a society where all the wealth is held by one person, hence the lower the index the more equally distributed is the wealth.

Agrarian societies at the earliest stages in both the old and new world were compared and both had Gini Indices of about 0.35. Over time, wealth inequality grew in old world Europe (Gini index 0.6) but remained flat in the new world (the Americas.) The difference was accounted for by the development and use of draft animals in the old world. With the exception of Llamas in limited use in the Andes, no draft animals existed in the New World.

Wealth in modern societies today is much more complex but Gini Indices are still relevant. The United States has an index of about 0.8, the highest in the developed world. Interestingly, we don’t think so. Chris Rock, a comedian, said “If poor people knew how rich rich people are, there would be riots in the streets.” In multiple surveys, Americans greatly underestimated the degree of inequality even while expressing that it should be more equitable than what they thought it was.

Averages from the survey suggested that people think the first quintile, the top 20%, should have 32% of the wealth, and they think that group has 60%. In reality, they own 85%. For the poorest 40%, people thought that they should have 25% of the wealth and guessed that they had 9%. They actually have a paltry 0.3%. The disparity has been widening over the last quarter century. The rich are getting richer, the middle-class share of the pie is decreasing slightly and the poor are rapidly getting poorer.

So what about the proposed tax reform being rushed through Congress? The Congressional Budget (CBO) scored the Senate bill and found that it will increase the national debt by 1.7 trillion dollars over ten years, the benefits of the tax cuts will favor the rich, and will actually burden the middle and lower class citizens. The rich will continue to get richer and the poor poorer.