Monthly Archives: March 2021

Texas was a Wake-up Call

The debacle in Texas recently with the winter storm and resultant collapse of several essential services should be a wake-up call for the rest of us that enjoy civilization. Rick Perry, former governor of Texas claimed however that Texans would rather freeze in their homes than accept federal intervention in their power grid. Really? Good luck with that.

First and foremost we need to recognize that civilization requires cooperation, in fact, that is what civilization is. A big part of Texas’s recent problem is that they don’t recognize this. Much of Texas’s electricity is supplied by a “private grid” that doesn’t require federal oversight. The rest of the United States is powered by one of two much larger grids that do.

The larger the grid the easier it is to ship power from an unstressed region to one of stress. It’s no accident that the lights stayed on in El Paso, Texas because their power that may have failed during the blizzard didn’t. Simply, they were connected to a wider grid that shipped power in from areas unaffected by the blizzard.

“Unaffected by the blizzard” means two things, both of which were addressed in El Paso. Over a decade ago, El Paso suffered a grid failure due to cold weather. They learned their lesson and upgraded the capacity of their electrical system to withstand the vagaries of cold weather.

Societal trends here in the United States, as elsewhere in many parts of the world, is to increased reliance on electricity as the clean power source of the future – and we need to get ready for it. It will not be cheap but it must be done.

Secretary of Transportation Buttigieg recently spoke of a maintenance backlog. He was of course talking about our transportation systems like roads and bridges, but it also applies to our electrical grid. More interconnections, more weather protection, even more terrorist/sabotage protection, are necessary.

More interconnections will help promote the greater utilization of intermittent power sources such as wind and solar. Much more power will be needed as we electrify our transportation systems – electric cars and delivery vehicles, up to and including semis. Both freight and high-speed passenger service can with relative ease be powered by electricity.

Weather protection may in some places require that we bury our electric transmission lines, just as pipelines. For that matter, we could bury much of our transportation. Elon Musk, of Tesla and Space-X fame, also has boring company. He has suggested that high-speed rails would benefit greatly by going into underground tunnels where the pressure could be reduced to limit wind resistance. Giant pneumatic tubes for transportation just like bank remote window use for checks.

The cost for all the needed improvements for the future is not trivial but will mean jobs. And that is the very essence of civilization: we cooperate for the benefit of all.

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

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,