How Did We Get Here? (edited)

Mylec Z2820 Hockey Stick

The appalling spectacle unfolding in Washington seems to demand explanation, and pundits are more than eager to fill the void. I think we all are trying to figure out the route from what seemed to be an orderly society into what seems to be chaos. What went wrong? What could have been different? What should we do to stop the bleeding?

As my son has taught me, when dealing with complex systems involving human behavior identifying in any detail which threads of past events have led to the current state of things is impossible; discerning in any detail how various threads of events are interacting to produce the current situation is impossible; and prediction in any detail is futile.

But if you back off from the detail, structure emerges even in very complex systems, and it is by placing current events in a matrix of emergent global processes that we can make some sense out of the chaos.

If you graph the most important phenomena supporting global civilization, you often come up with something resembling Al Gore’s famous “hockey stick” graph that predicted global warming (which turns out to be quite accurate). Pollution, water usage, urban development, resource extraction, species extinction, travel, trade, communication, technology, invasive species, likelihood of global pandemics, urban life, cost of extending life, the number of consumer good wrapped in plastic – all seem to be accelerating toward a peak. Even processes like population growth, with slowing growth rates, still are growing at a high rate.

Three simple facts define our future. First, global civilization is a finite system because the earth’s near-surface resources upon which civilization depends are finite. Second, a finite system cannot continue to grow unless you redefine growth to mean change within sustainable limits (whatever you think they are). Third, nearly all processes within global civilization depend upon continued growth.

So I think we need to look at political and social chaos as the unpredictable details of a predictable unraveling of global civilization. I go on and on about this subject in other essays, and since all I accomplish is making the reader feel bad, plus I may be wrong, I guess the best approach is for all of us to drop back and come up with theories about how we got here. A theory a day keeps reality at bay!

Revolutionary Science During My Lifetime

Lockwood-Mathews Mansion, Norwalk CT.

During my 81 years, many scientific discoveries have struck me as remarkable. This is my personal list, and doesn’t purport to identify all that are truly revolutionary, only those that dramatically changed how I think about the world. Typically, I would hear about these discoveries through Scientific American, which I have read faithfully for the last 65 years, and through books aimed at the informed layperson. Sometimes I hear about them directly from scientists; most often, they cross my attention two or more years after they appear in the scientific literature.

Sadly, magazines that try to popularize science are caught in the crossfire between the growing complexity of significant discoveries, the right-wing attack on science in general and evolution in particular, competition from visual media, lack of training among scientists on presenting material to the public, and the reduced attention span of their potential readership. The response of Scientific American is that articles are often written by science writers instead of the scientists themselves, excess coverage is given of “sexy” subjects such as extraterrestrial planets and cosmology, and complex subjects are dumbed down to the point of incomprehensibility. I have almost given up on Scientific American.

New Tools

Throughout my life, the technology for making scientific observations has developed at an accelerating pace. In the typical case, theoretical advances follow breakthroughs in the sensitivity of scientific tools: more powerful telescopes and microscopes, computers and electronics, spacecraft, rapid gene sequencing, finer instruments, more powerful particle accelerators, etc. There is a dialectic between theory and the particular tools that are developed: theory informs their design, while new data uncovered by the tools suggests new theories.

Plate Tectonics

I recall giving a report in an ROTC class on Alfred Wegener’s proposal that continents drifted. Despite the extensive evidence he presented supporting his ideas, the geology establishment dismissed his ideas because they couldn’t think of any physical mechanism that could move continents. However, various theorists were gradually assembling data that would coalesce by 1965 into a coherent theory of plate tectonics. It was a beautiful, comprehensive theory that, like Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, made sense out of an entire scientific discipline. It had special meaning for me because the Alvin submersible that explored the Mid-Atlantic Ridge to help verify the theory was invented by and named for a friend and neighbor, Allyn Vine.

DNA and the Genetic Code

In 1953, during my first semester at UC Berkeley, I lived in a dormitory. One evening we were treated to an informal talk by the famous scientist George Gamow (sitting on one of the dining tables), who was closely following the race between the team of Watson, Crick, Franklin and Wilkins at Cambridge and Linus Pauling at Caltech. At that moment, Pauling had settled on a triple-helix structure for DNA, which Gamow explained to us. It was only a few weeks later that Watson and Crick, thanks to the exquisite X-Ray crystallographic images produced by Rosalind Franklin, came up with their theory, which they quickly published in their famous paper on the double-helix.

Later, in 1964, Crick correctly determined that triplets of nucleotide bases in DNA coded for specific amino acids, which were then transcribed by RNA. Like the double-helix, this discovery was accessible to the general reader, and the results were widely published.

Human Evolution

Year after year new fossils are discovered, and gene sequencing has resolved many issues, while raising new ones. Recently it was determined that the ancestors of modern humans left Africa about 70,000 years ago, and had made it to Australia by 50,000 years ago. They had a sophisticated culture, including art and very likely fully developed language.

Another surprise was the fossil hominin Ardipithecus ramidus (nicknamed “Ardi”). Hominins are those species of ape that branched off from chimpanzees about six or seven million years ago and include humans. Ardi lived about 4.4 million years ago and was a tree-dweller that also walked upright. Upright stance frees the arms to attack prey with projectiles, a key advantage that led to the dominance of hominins – in my view the key advantage.

The discovery of Homo floresiensis, nicknamed the Hobbit, was another surprise. Only  three and a half feet high and descended from some other line of hominin, lived until the arrival of modern humans about 50,000 years ago (megafauna also disappeared from the island after humans arrived, as usual).

The timing and interdependence of various key human traits (bipedalism, large brains, opposable thumbs, control of fire, hairlessness, language, etc.) is still far from settled. For example, was the control of fire (increasing the amount of protein in the diet) a necessary condition for a larger brain? When and how did language evolve?

Cognitive Science

The discovery that our prized rationality has little control over our behavior, and that the “self” is an artifact of our brains has had the effect of knocking humans almost completely off our pedestal. Granted that after the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions there wasn’t much of a pedestal left, we still could pretend we were the masters of reason. In parallel we have discovered that animal cognition is far more subtle and complex than we thought.

The Death of Progress

Science has extended lifespan and for the top tier of humans, making life fabulously safe and comfortable. But as we move into the Anthropocene (yet to become an officially sanctioned era) we are awakening to the fact that the dominance of humanity and our population explosion is a death-knell for vast numbers of organisms on the planet, and potentially for ourselves. Global warming, the Sixth Extinction, pollution, resource depletion and the threat of nuclear annihilation have forced us to re-evaluate what we mean by “progress,” since its normal implication of “improvement” increasingly is a source of irony. We had better make some major changes in how we live very soon. The alternative is unimaginable.

I am sure I have omitted a few discoveries that changed how I view reality, but this will do for the nonce.

“The Vital Question” by Nick Lane

Artist’s model, 2016

Occasionally a book comes along that completely transforms how you look at a subject, and this is one of them. Nick Lane is an English biochemist with a gift for writing about complex science for a lay readership. Readers vary in their background knowledge of a subject, and the science writer faces a tradeoff between reaching a broad audience on a superficial level and a smaller audience with some technical background. I think Lane has achieved the right balance, but to present his subject in enough detail to depict the tight logic supporting his findings and speculations, the balance was necessarily skewed toward the technical.

And what an amazing, intricately woven theory he presents! His argument is based on solid findings from a variety of scientific disciplines, extended by careful logic into testable hypotheses to form what is almost a biological theory of everything.

In an environment where genetics dominates both research and its popularization, Lane injects basic issues of physics and chemistry that in my experience as an avid science reader are seldom raised in writings about biology. Physics and chemistry seriously constrain the options available to support life, and from these constraints Lane derives a convincing story about the origin of life in general and complex life in particular.

In discussing how cells use nutrients to create the energy needed to sustain life processes, he brings to life the staggering complexity of the microscopic machines that do the job. In this essay, I will explain some terms and quote Lane’s vivid description.

Organic (carbon-containing) molecules in organisms can be classified as proteins, fatty acids, carbohydrates and nucleotides (such as DNA and RNA). One nucleotide, ATP (short for adenosine triphosphate) is a small molecule often referred to as the “molecular unit of currency” that provides the energy to drive cellular processes such as the synthesis of proteins and membranes, movement, cellular division, and transport of materials within a cell.

ATP stores its energy as mechanical stress in a chemical bond, and releases this energy when one of its three phosphate groups breaks free, relaxing the bond. Each cell “spends” on average a staggering ten million ATP molecules a second, and our 40 trillion cells spend our body weight of ATP every day. We only have about 6 grams of ATP molecules, so they must be recharged with energy every minute of so.

The cellular machinery that recharges ATP molecules is as universal as the genetic code, implying that it arose at the origin of life. The system is surprisingly complicated and counter-intuitive, which highly constrains the environmental conditions necessary for such a system to evolve. Discarding one proposal after another, Lane makes a convincing case that life began within the minute pores of alkaline hydrothermal vents, larger and cooler cousins of the more famous “black smokers” found by the submersible Alvin on the seafloor at spreading centers. Detail by detail, he traces the likely sequence of events that resulted in this universal power plant of life.

The centerpiece of the book is Lane’s proposal for resolving what he calls the “black hole” at the center of life’s evolution. The single-celled bacteria and their archaea cousins – prokaryotes – are the original life forms that evolved early in the history of the planet. While by any standard bacteria and archaea are soberingly complex, eukaryotes – protists, animals, plants, algae, fungi and yeasts – exceed them in size and complexity by many orders of magnitude.

The great puzzle is that in the fossil record, eukaryotes appear fully formed, around 1.5 billion years ago. Instead of the expected radiation of different kinds of eukaryotes, and of intermediate forms between prokaryotes and eukaryotes, there is one branch, one LECA (last eukaryotic common ancestor), seemingly fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus, with all the complex machinery found in its descendants. Why did this happen?

Lynn Margulis established that mitochondria, the organelles in eukaryotes that contain the machinery for producing ATP, are descended from a bacteria that was somehow incorporated into an archaea as an “endosymbiont,” “endo” meaning inside (much later, a photosynthesizing cyanobacteria was incorporated into plants and algae as an endosymbiont, the chloroplast). Mitochondria have their own tiny genome that is passed down through mothers; perhaps you have heard of “mitochondrial Eve”, the mother of us all.

Lane proposes that the newly incorporated mitochondria rapidly transferred their DNA to their new host, causing havoc that was only averted successfully on one occasion. Endosymbiosis is extremely rare, and because of the conflict between the genomes of the host and the endosymbiont, most such natural experiments quickly lead to extinction. But plainly it worked for LECA or we wouldn’t be here. At the end of the book he describes a recently discovered bacterium with an endosymbiont, that appears to be developing complexity. Its extreme rarity demonstrates the difficulty for such collaborations to survive and evolve.

Mitochondria are the heroines of the book, and I will close with Lane’s description of an imaginary trip through a mitochondrion by an ATP-sized person:

Take a dizzying ride down into one of your cells, let’s say a heart muscle cell. Its rhythmic contractions are powered by ATP, which is flooding out from the many large mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cell. Shrink yourself down to the size of an ATP molecule, and zoom in through a large protein pore in the external membrane of a mitochondrion. We find ourselves in a confined space, like the engine room of a boat, packed with overheating protein machinery, stretching as far as the eye can see. The ground is bubbling with what look like little balls, which shoot out from the machines, appearing and disappearing in milliseconds. Protons! The whole space is dancing with the fleeting apparitions of protons, the positively charged nuclei of hydrogen atoms. No wonder you can barely see them! Sneak through one of those monstrous protein machines into the inner bastion, the matrix, and an extraordinary sight greets you. You are in a cavernous space, a dizzying vortex where fluid walls sweep past you in all directions, all jammed with gigantic clanking and spinning machines. Watch your head! These vast protein complexes are sunk deeply into the walls, and move around sluggishly as if submerged in the sea. But their parts move at amazing speed. Some sweep back and forth, too fast for the eye to see, like the pistons of a stream engine. Others spin on their axis, threatening to detach and fly off at any moment, driven by pirouetting crankshafts. Tens of thousands of these crazy perpetual motion machines stretch off in all directions, whirring away, all sound and fury, signifying…what?

You are at the epicentre of the cell, the site of cellular respiration, deep within the mitochondria….

I hope you are inspired to explore this remarkable book.

The Foundation of Civilization: Trust

Rowayton harbor on a misty morning

A structural engineer friend once told me that you can’t safely use welded steel framing in India because so many of the weld inspectors take bribes. Welding is subject to failure, and trustworthy inspection is the only way to find the failed welds and repair them. Likewise, I am told that LEED certification in India is a farce, as consultants who must verify performance simply invent results for a small fee. Most LEED-certified project in India receive the highest rating, Platinum: if you are cheating, cheat big.

Civilization has always been based to some extent on technology, but we have become like parasites in a technological host, utterly helpless without it. Even ISIS, determined as it is to send us all back into the 14th Century, is completely dependent upon electronic media, along with modern weapons, explosives and vehicles. Shut off the electricity and everything else shuts down.

As the examples from India suggest, corruption that undermines trust also undermines the technology on which modern civilization is based. Quality control standards are at the heart of establishing trust. It is unfortunately one of the least sexy aspects of technology. The procedures prescribed by ISO (International Organization for Standards) are mind-numbingly thorough, requiring repeated testing, recording and re-checking. But ISO is the gold standard of quality control, and manufacturers who meet ISO standards can profitably use this fact in their marketing.

The Wikipedia entry on ISO notes that Microsoft pushed through a fast-track procedure now approved by ISO. A criticism of ISO’s decision to approve this procedure elicited this comment from Computer security entrepreneur (and investor in a Linux based operating system that completes with Windows), Mark Shuttleworth:

When you have a process built on trust and when that trust is abused, ISO should halt the process… ISO is an engineering old boys club and these things are boring so you have to have a lot of passion … then suddenly you have an investment of a lot of money and lobbying [by Microsoft] and you get artificial results. The process is not set up to deal with intensive corporate lobbying and so you end up with something being a standard that is not clear.

Volunteer standards like ISO are necessary but not sufficient in a marketplace based on economic competition. A current example is the Millennium Tower in San Francisco, which as of 2016 had sunk 16 inches and tilted 6 inches at the top. The causes likely were the use of 60- to 90-foot long friction pilings sunk in the unstable mud and sand, rather than 200-foot pilings down to bedrock; combined with the crazy decision (in an earthquake-prone area) to use a heavy concrete frame rather than lighter steel framing to construct the tallest building in the city. I speculate that these decisions reduced first cost, greed trumping quality and common sense, as it so often does. No one knows what will happen to the building in a major earthquake, when the mud and sand supporting the building may turn into jelly.

It is this perverse incentive to ignore reality for short-term gain that requires regulation by disinterested third parties, typically established by governments. The Millennium Tower was built before the city had set up the current structural review procedure, relying instead on the word of the structural engineer (hired by the developer).

It is highly disturbing that our political right-wing is bent on dismantling such regulations. Yes, they slow down development, burden companies with paperwork, and add cost. That’s the whole point, to insist on quality in order to establish trust. The alternative is, in the long run, to undermine the foundations not only of tall buildings but of the technology that holds up modern civilization.

It is ironic that the companies that fund the radical right are themselves completely dependent upon the trust they are undermining – yet another example of the very phenomenon (setting reality aside in favor of short-term gain) that the regulations are designed to counteract!



Bucky Fuller’s Dymaxion Car: What Was He Thinking?

Bucky Fuller was what we would now call a “futurist,” someone wedded to the myth of progress, with unlimited faith in the power of technology. He was also a highly gifted amateur, never afraid to apply his intuition to a problem, but always taking a short-cut to avoid the difficult road to truly useful innovation, one paved with hard won evidence.

He leapt into any endeavor from the top, determined that his genius could solve problems that plagued ordinary smart people who were working in the trenches building from a solid foundation. Now it does happen, very rarely, that a gifted amateur stumbles on a solution to an important problem. Amateurs indeed contribute much, yet seldom without devoting the time to become thoroughly knowledgeable about the science and technology behind the problem they are trying to solve.

Two examples come to mind. The great physicist Richard Feynman, always determined to derive insight from first principles, delved into evolutionary theory and correctly deduced a number of insights, which he proudly put before the famous evolutionist Steven Jay Gould for comment. Gould noted that he could have learned everything he deduced from a textbook on evolution. So in regard to this subject, Feynman was an amateur, and had over-valued his insight in his attempt to make an end-run around the hard work of learning the trade.

In contrast I would point to the highly respected amateur ethologist, Ellen Dissanayake. She never achieved a bachelor’s degree, but by dint of hard work over many years, she self-educated to become a leading investigator on the subject of the evolution of art, and was admitted to the company of scholars in the field despite her lack of credentials.

As far as I know, Bucky Fuller never invented anything that was particularly useful. His famous geodesic domes were a solution looking for a problem (and he didn’t invent them). They were lightweight and could cover large spans, as long as the foundation was circular. They did find limited use covering a few sports stadiums and exhibit spaces, and for radar installations, temporary shelter, and even a few homes. I was involved in the construction of a geodesic dome birdcage in Oakland, California, an ideal use because it did not involve the difficulties in attaching a weatherproof skin to the framework, and took maximum advantage of the volume enclosed within a spherical shape.

Bucky did however popularize a number of ideas that have implanted themselves in the cultural milieu (what Richard Dawkins would call “memes”). He got deeply involved in the geometry of geodesic solids, which he applied to his domes; his name became closely enough associated with geodesic geometry that when scientists fabricated strong carbon materials exhibiting geodesic geometry, they named the materials “fullerenes”. I think his primary claim to fame is popularizing this branch of mathematics.

In the 1930’s, the technology of both cars and airplanes was advancing rapidly and garnering in inordinate amount of attention. Bucky, in his thirties, got a bee in his bonnet that the world needed a land-sea-air vehicle, which would in his view provide people with unlimited freedom of movement.

Putting aside its utter impracticality if realized and the anti-social Libertarian philosophy underlying it, the idea had no basis in physics. Flight then and now requires rigid wings, but Bucky envisioned inflatable wings, along with “slots” for future jet-power of some sort. It was a Flash Gordon fantasy, an adolescent dream.

Acknowledging the difficulty of resolving the flying and floating aspects of the vehicle, he concentrated on its terrestrial mode. With the help of a kindred spirit, the inventor, aviation pioneer and yacht designer William Starling Burgess, he put his ideas for a car together and over time built three prototypes.

As the photos show, it was innovative in shape, adopting the “streamlining” that was being popularized in the U.S. by the industrial designers Henry Dreyfuss, Otto Kuehler and Raymond Loewy. Its superstructure (including the thin members supporting the extensive glass) was lovingly crafted from wood, no doubt courtesy of yacht-designer Burgess. It had an engine in the rear that drove the front wheels, and was a whopping 19 feet long. It had no rear windows and no rear-view mirrors.

For reasons only known to Bucky’s unconscious, he decided that rear-wheel steering was a good idea. Anyone who has handled a cart or vehicle with rear steering, or tried to back a car, knows its fatal defect: any steering error is magnified in a runaway feedback cycle. Rear steering cannot be made self-correcting, as can front steering (with appropriate camber and toe-in). The only vehicles made with rear steering are fork-lifts and street-sweepers, which are operated at low speeds and need to make sharp turns.

Somehow or other, a few highly skilled people learned how to drive the Dymaxion car at moderate speeds. On an infamous occasion in 1933, Francis Turner, a famous race driver who had learned to operate the Dymaxion car, was driving aviation pioneer William Sempill and the French Air Minister Charles Dollfuss to a rendezvous with the Graf Zeppelin when a Chicago official crowded the car trying to get a close look. Turner sped up to 70 mph to evade the rubbernecker.

The official’s car accidentally bumped into the rear of the Dymaxion, causing Turner to lose control of the steering. The car entered its fatal feedback cycle, turning sideways and rolling over, killing Turner and seriously injuring Sempill. Astonishingly, the court did not find the design of the car to be a factor in the crash. If something like this happened today, Fuller would be in prison.

Not only did Fuller promote a fundamentally deadly design, he hyped its capabilities, claiming that its weight was low, that it got very high gas mileage, and that it could go over 100 mph, all of which were untrue.

To get a more in-depth account of what it is like to drive a Dymaxion car, go to or

Here are a few quotes from the latter source:

“With the steering’s self-centering action non-existent and the epic amounts of tiller-spinning still required, crowned roads, bumps and potholes can present life-threatening challenges.”

“…no one in his or her right mind would ever venture above 45 miles per hour because of the lousy handling…”

“So this is the stuff that some automotive legends are made of – a wacky idea, a shameless promoter’s dream and a credulous press, excited to herald the coming of a wonderful new future.”

“Shameless promoter” and “living in an alternative reality” are good ways to describe Fuller (and Donald Trump), yet he remains a fascinating character, and his lectures were utterly riveting to this impressionable college student. Building the geodesic birdcage in Oakland, California was a highlight of my life.

Bucky acted out the same dreams I dreamed, and perhaps I am chastising myself for being unrealistic. I admit that I am being unfair to Bucky: he was a man of his time –  and of mine. And compared to the devastation left in Mr. Trump’s wake, contributing to one death is a small crime indeed. The time was out of joint, dislocated by the myth of progress that still enthralls us.

Book Review: “The Gene”

This 500 page masterpiece by Columbia cancer physician and researcher Siddhartha Mukherjee traces the history of genetics science from ancient Greece through mid-2015. Mukherjee received the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for his book on cancer, “The Emperor of All Maladies: a Biography of Cancer,” which Time magazine considered one of the 100 best and most influential works of non-fiction since 1923, and which was made into a PBS documentary by Ken Burns.

Mukherjee’s genius lies in his seemingly effortless ability to organize a bewildering maze of intersecting research programs and discoveries into a smoothly flowing story. Patiently, he reminds the reader of key facts from earlier in the story at just the point when you might lose the thread. There are practically no diagrams: he relies on his lucid prose and his ability to bring the protagonists to vivid life.

Through the narrative he weaves the story of his family, which was plagued by schizophrenia and bi-polar disease.

Do you believe there is a gene for specific behaviors or diseases? Are you confused about the “nature or nurture” debate? Are you aware of ethical implications of our very recently developed abilities to reconstruct the human genome? Did James Watson steal Rosalind Franklin’s findings? Do you want to know why we have half as many genes as corn or wheat? Can inheritance occur in other ways than the passing on of genes? Is “The Bell Curve” really racist? Did Craig Venter help or hinder the Human Genome Project? Is “junk DNA” really junk?

If so, read “The Gene.”

This book is a miracle: a fair, detailed, up-to-date story about a mindbogglingly complex subject that is almost a page-turner.

Stop Being Terrified

It turns out, unsurprisingly, that most of my ideas have been expressed much more succinctly by someone else. Here is an excellent article pleading for calm and reason in response to bomb-throwers. Our obsession with perfect safety is making us miserable.

Reason is needed, but emotion guides our actions, as predicted by the psychologists and amply demonstrated by events.

History in Lifetimes

Outbuilding at Cardney-Dunkeld, 1968
Outbuilding at Cardney-Dunkeld, 1968

Born in 1935, I began to be vaguely aware of the wider world in 1941, at age 6, when we declared war on Japan. So 75 years of sentience have passed for me as I write in 2016.

It is hard for me to realize that had I been born just one lifetime earlier, in 1855, the Civil War would have replaced WWII, and I now would be living in the depths of the Great Depression. Further, my life expectancy at birth would have been 43 years instead of 65 years. Another lifetime earlier, and from then all the way back, it would have been in the 30’s.

So it seemed useful to look back in time in 75-year steps – my long lifetime – beginning in 2015 to keep the numbers simple. As I go back in time, there is less detail. Partly this is a matter of perspective, but mainly it is that events with crucial implications for the future are occurring much more rapidly. A decade today is equivalent to a century a few hundred years ago, millennia before that, and hundreds of millennia as humans evolved from earlier species.

The timeline begins at the present, and steps back for 10 lifetimes. After that, the steps become progressively longer. Prior to the point at which the human lineage splits off from that leading to chimps, the steps become snapshots of key evolutionary events.

YBP means “years before the present”. I will omit “CE” for common era dates (formerly AD), and stick with “BC” instead of “BCE” (before the common era).

My Lifetime: 1940-2015

Human population more than triples

Humans and their livestock and pets now account for 98 percent of the world’s vertebrate biomass (mammals, marsupials, reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds). 10,000 years ago, they accounted for one-tenth of one percent.

Global warming is confirmed and accelerates

Sixth Extinction is confirmed and accelerates

Communism, Nazism, WWII, Chinese Revolution, Cold War, numerous regional wars

Invention, use and proliferation of nuclear weapons – humans gain the capacity to exterminate all complex life on earth through “nuclear winter”

Plastics revolutionize material culture, create extensive ocean pollution

Tens of thousands of man-made chemicals created and disseminated

Electronics revolutionizes communication and becomes the primary information storage medium

All technology becomes dependent upon electricity

Consumerism and the necessity of growth becomes a dominant global force

Free trade and air travel link all people economically

Muslim radicalism erupts

Growing migration of populations displaced by war

Lifetime Two: 1865-1940

Height of Nationalism and Colonialism

All science is integrated around seminal discoveries in physics

Western countries are electrified

Coal-based railroads and steamships revolutionize transportation

Petroleum-based technology revolutionizes transportation again (automobiles and aircraft)

Modern medicine matures, extending life expectancy

Russian Revolution, WWI

Lifetime Three: 1790-1865

Industrial revolution becomes a dominant force

Coal-based technologies arise

Middle classes expand in Europe and America

Darwin undermines the foundation of religion

Nationalism and Colonialism growing

Most of eastern U.S. deforested

Lifetime Four: 1715-1790

European Enlightenment

American and French revolutions

Early industrial revolution

Lifetime Five: 1640-1715

Newton revolutionizes physics and invents the calculus

Louis XIV guides France to its apex of power and sets the stage for its decline

Wars in Europe continue

Lifetime Six: 1565-1640

Galileo and the rediscovery of experimental science

Luther triggers the Reformation, which leads to the wars of religion

Age of Elizabeth and Shakespeare

Descartes revolutionizes philosophy and mathematics

Spanish are the dominant power in Europe

 Lifetime Seven: 1490-1565

Late Renaissance

Voyages of discovery

Destruction of Pre-Columbian civilizations and their written history by the Spanish

Lifetime Eight: 1415-1490

Ottomans conquer Byzantium

High Renaissance in Europe

Lifetime Nine: 1340-1415

Black Death kills one in three Europeans

Schism fractures the Catholic Church

Tamerlane invades middle Asia

Rise of Ottoman Empire

Early Renaissance

Lifetime Ten: 1265-1340

Islam in retreat, under attack in east and west

Late Middle Ages in Europe

Nation states arise in Europe

Increased contact between East and West

 Lifetimes 20-10: 515 – 1265

Feudalism dominates for 500 years in Europe after Germanic invasions

Catholic church becomes the predominant power in Europe

Medieval revival of European culture

Origin and explosive expansion of Islam

Golden age of Islamic science

Lifetimes 30-20: 235 BC to 515

The Roman Empire replaces the Roman Republic and disintegrates after 500 years of dominance

The invasion of the Huns sets off the Great Migration of Germanic tribes into Europe

Christianity arises and becomes the dominant religion in Europe.

Roman culture survives in the Byzantine Empire

Lifetimes 50-30: 1735 BC to 235 BC

Written history arises in China

Urban civilizations arise in India and Meso-America

Classical Greek culture

Alexander the Great reaches India

Roman republic arises and conquers Italy

Deforestation for agriculture, ship-building and fuel begins, continuing to the present

Lifetimes 75-50: 3610 BC to 1735 BC

Invention of writing and recorded history

First civilization – Sumer, c. 3,300 BC

First Egyptian dynasty c. 3,100 BC

Harrapan civilization arises in the Indus Valley c. 2,600 BC

Pre-literate civilizations arise in Meso-America

First Chinese dynasty c. 2,000 BC

Lifetime 100-75: 5,485 BC to 3,610 BC

Pre-literate civilizations arise in Iraq, Egypt and Pakistan

Lifetimes 150-100: 9,235 BC to 5,485 BC

End of the last glacial period

Invention of agriculture and animal husbandry

The first towns appear

Lifetimes 200-100: 12,985 BC to 9,235 BC

Humans colonize North America via the land bridge across the Bering Strait.

As occurred elsewhere soon after colonization by humans, nearly all the megafauna in the Americas become extinct.

Lifetimes 500-200: 35,500 YBP to 12,985 BC

The last of our close relatives, the Neanderthals and Denisovans, disappear, after interbreeding with modernt humans

Humans colonize the entire earth except for the Americas, Antarctica, and some Pacific Islands

Lifetimes 1,000-500: 75,000 YBP to 35,500 YBP

Fully mature language evolves

The first confirmed evidence of art occurs

Modern humans (Homo sapiens) colonize Eurasia, Australia and some Pacific islands

Lifetimes 100,000-3,000: 7,500,000 YBP to 225,000 YBP

The lineage of African great apes leading to humans, their ancestors and cousins (Hominins) splits from the lineage leading to Chimpanzees and Bonobos (genus Pan); Gorillas and Orangutans had split off earlier

Numerous Hominin genuses and species arise, a few of which are ancestral to humans (no one knows which ones)

Members of the genus Homo migrate out of Africa at various times. Homo erectus Hominins migrate into Middle East, East Asia and India about 2,000,000 YBP

Stone tools and fire are invented

Upright posture frees hands to use projectile weapons, giving Hominins a crucial advantage in hunting: attacking from a distance

Early form of language develop

Lifetime 870,000: 65,000,000 YBP

A great extinction event triggered by a comet impact results in extinction of dinosaurs (except birds), allowing the dominance of mammals

Lifetime 2,100,000: 160,000,000 YBP

Origin of flowering plants resulting in major increase in atmospheric oxygen, allowing the evolution of large terrestrial animals

Lifetime 7,200,000: 540,000,000 YBP

The “Cambrian Explosion” populates the seas with macroscopic organisms, the ancestors of all our phyla of animals

Soon thereafter, animals, plants and fungi move onto land

Lifetime 28,000,000: 2,100,000,000 YBP

The “Great Oxygen Event” occurs when enough oxygen accumulates in the atmosphere to cause a massive extinction event and the evolution of oxygen-dependent organisms

Eukaryotes, much more complex but still microscopic organisms, form by the merging of specialized prokaryotes and viruses.

 Lifetime 50,000,000: 3.700,000,000 YBP

Life arises, probably in many different forms, until one chemical system becomes the standard template for all subsequent life

All life for the next 2 billion years consists of prokaryotes – bacteria and bacteria-like “archaea”, along with viruses

Lifetime 61,000,000: 4,600,000,000 YBP

The sun ignites at the center of a rotating disk of dust, ice, heavy elements and gas, in a quiet “suburb” between spiral arms of the Milky Way Galaxy

The earth, other planets, and countless larger and smaller fragment coalesce from the rotating disk

Large and small fragments bombard the earth. One the size of Mars strikes a glancing blow to the earth, and the resulting debris coagulates into our moon.

The bombardment gradually tapers off over half a billion years, until the earth cools enough for liquid water to form; it is uncertain where the water came from

 Lifetime 183,000,000: 13,700,000,000 YPB

The universe expands abruptly from a tiny kernel in the “Big Bang” and the “Cosmic Inflation” that immediately followed, all within an infinitesimal fraction of a second. Or at least that what cosmologists thought last week.

After the “Dark Ages”, stars begin to form and our galaxy begins to coalesce, a process that continues to the present

  Next Lifetime: 2015-2090

I see the next lifetime as a climactic episode of dramatic change in human civilization and global ecosystems. Nobody knows what the world in 2090 will be like, but it is certain that it will not remotely resemble that of 2015. It is extremely unlikely that it will be as comfortable, populous and orderly.

Steam Locomotives Part 2: Engines, Motors and Turbines

I find it annoying that there isn’t a comprehensive discussion readily available to distinguish the various types of engines, motors and turbines. I think we need this for its own sake, and in order to home in on where steam locomotives fit into the scheme of things.

Engines, motors and turbines convert a source of energy into rotary or reciprocating (back and forth) motion. While the term “motor” is always used when referring to electrical motors, it also refers to engines of various kinds, particularly the internal combustion engines used to power vehicles.

Energy is quite difficult to define because it takes many forms, and we are most interested in its transformations from form to form. The sources of the energy we use on earth are nuclear fission within the earth and nuclear fusion within the sun. And of course, the ultimate source of everything, including energy, is the Big Bang.

A practical definition of energy is the ability to perform “work”. Work is typically defined from a human-centered perspective – it has to be “useful.” Energy typically passes through a cascade of transformations from its ultimate source to useful work. To take one example: nuclear fusion within the sun creates electromagnetic radiation that strikes the earth and heats bodies of water; the water evaporates to form clouds; rain condenses out of the clouds to fill reservoirs; the potential energy of the elevated water is converted into rotary mechanical energy in turbines; the turbines rotate generators that create electrical energy; the electrical energy is converted back into rotary kinetic energy by an electric motor; and this energy does useful work by moving a vehicle, spinning a saw blade, or performing any of the myriad tasks for which we use electric motors.

The example is typical of an energy cascade in having many steps where energy is changed in form. Another example would be solar energy transforming chlorophyll into sugar, which powers the growth of plants, which become food that we consume (either directly or via domestic animals) and transform into sugar, which powers our muscles to do useful work. At each transformation of the source energy, some is lost and dissipated into the environment as diffuse heat. Only a fraction of the original source energy ends up doing what we call useful work, although some processes are much more efficient than others.

Internal Combustion Engines

Four stroke internal combustion cylinder CC BY-SA 3.0, E exhaust port cam I intake port cam S spark plug V valves P piston R connecting rod C crankshaft W water cooling jacket
Four stroke internal combustion cylinder
CC BY-SA 3.0,
E exhaust port cam
I intake port cam
S spark plug
V valves
P piston
R connecting rod
C crankshaft
W water cooling jacket

Engines that operate by burning fuel come in two varieties: internal and external combustion. Both types can further be subdivided into reciprocating piston engines and gas turbines. In an internal combustion piston engine, air and fuel burn in one or more enclosed cylinders, creating heat that expands the air, pushing on pistons that turn a crankshaft to power autos, trucks, motor vessels, small aircraft and equipment.

In an internal combustion gas turbine, fuel and air are burned in an open-ended chamber to create a continuing flow of expanding gas that moves turbine blades attached to a rotating shaft. The turbine blades expend some of their work in compressing the air entering the turbine. In a commercial turbofan or turbojet engine, the maximum amount of energy is extracted by the turbine blades to drive a propeller, with the residual used to provide additional thrust.

Turbofan gas turbine engine
Turbofan gas turbine engine

In the illustration, the fan (really a big propeller in a housing) shown on the left is turned by the turbine blades shown at the right, in the area colored red. Much of the air from the fan escapes around the engine, shown by the dark blue pointed shapes, while the air in the center passes through the multistage compressor, which is also turned by the turbine blades. The compressed air is mixed with fuel in the combustion chamber, creating hot gas that turns the turbine. Residual hot gas exits as a jet exhaust.

The turbines blades in a military jet engine only extract the amount of energy needed to run the compressor blades; the rest of the expanding gas roars out the jet exhaust, its kinetic energy thrusting the aircraft forward. Rockets are yet another kind of internal combustion engine. Instead of using the oxygen in air to create combustion, they carry their own oxidizing material (such as liquid oxygen) and can operate in a vacuum.

Gas turbines are also used to generate power.

A diesel-electric locomotive uses a diesel internal combustion engine to turn a generator, which creates electricity to power motors that turn the wheels.

External Combustion Engines

As the name implies, the fuel powering an external combustion engine is burned outside the engine, transferring the energy of combustion into a “working fluid” that then does the mechanical work. Steam is the working fluid of choice in most cases because changing water into steam stores energy equivalent to raising its temperature 1,000 degrees F. Today nearly all external combustion engines are steam turbines, where steam drives turbine blades to create rotary kinetic energy.

Another form of external “combustion” is nuclear power, where nuclear fission heats either water or a working fluid that ultimately heats water, to create steam for use in a turbine. The turbine either drives a generator or rotates the screws in a nuclear-powered ship.

Turbines have the great advantage of having few moving part, but the turbine blades must be of a high-strength material carefully machined, and were not available until late in WWII, when working jet engines were finally developed. At the very end of the age of steam locomotives, both internal and external combustion turbines were used briefly by a few railroads. They were no match for the diesel-electric.

Finally, we get to the steam engine! The classic design, invented in the late 18th Century, uses steam created by external combustion to move a piston back and forth, creating a reciprocating motion that does work by cranking a shaft or turning a wheel. Such a device was possible in the 18th Century, using the iron-based technology of the time, and burning wood or coal.

We can now derive a technical description of a typical steam locomotive: It is a wheeled vehicle running on metal rails, carrying a boiler to create steam, towing it’s own fossil fuel and water supply, with one or two reciprocating steam engines on each side turning paired driving wheels that provides the traction needed to pull a train of cars.

“Strawberry Moon”

I’m a little late getting this up, but these two diagrams illustrate what you see at latitude 40 N on the summer solstice, when there is a full moon (so-called “strawberry moon – borrowed from folklore). This doesn’t occur often, but an almost full moon at the solstice is quite common. So there is nothing about the appearance of a strawberry moon that is special. It is only that it is full on the same day as the solstice.

This means the moon is in “opposition” to the sun, that is, in the opposite direction from the earth. Since the sun is at the summer solstice (in the constellation Taurus, the bull), the moon must be at the winter solstice (in the constellation Sagittarius, the archer).

Well, almost at the winter solstice. You will notice in the second diagram that the sun is 73.5 degrees above the horizon, while the moon is +/- 26.5 degrees above the horizon. Why the hedging about the moon’s angle? Well, the moon doesn’t orbit the earth exactly in the plane of the ecliptic. If it did, there would be a lunar eclipse and a solar eclipse every month. The orbit is tilted at about 5 degrees, and I don’t happen to know how much it was off the plane of the ecliptic on June 20, 2016, hence the hedging

Diagram showing direction of sunset and moonrise
Diagram showing direction of sunset and moonrise


Diagram showing sun at noon and moon at midnight
Diagram showing sun at noon and moon at midnight

Postscript: the orbit of the moon lies in a plane that is tilted relative to the plane of the ecliptic by a little more than 5 degrees. So there is a line where the two plane intersect, and if you extend this line, it points to a specific point in the sky, somewhere in the zodiac. This point slowly moves  through the constellations of the zodiac, making a complete trip every 18.6 years.

The reason for this is that the plane of the moon’s orbit precesses, just like the plane of the earth’s orbit. The moon is much smaller than the earth, so it precesses every 18.6 years, while the earth’s orbital plane precesses every 25,000 years, known as the precession of the equinoxes. This is why the north celestial pole used to be near Vega, but is now near Polaris.

I read that this 18.6 year cycle was important to several prehistoric cultures. We know this by analyzing various astronomical constructions they made. Just like solstice means “sun standstill”, the corresponding event for the moon is called the “lunar standstill.”

We pay dearly for living indoors in cities, as we have few occasions for observing the night sky. Prehistoric peoples knew a lot of astronomy!