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!

More Sense on Senses

It appears that bacteria have over 100 sensing mechanisms. Quoting  [my underlining]

“According to John S. Parkinson, a professor of biology at the University of Utah, “most organisms – even bacteria – can sense sound, light, pressure, gravity and chemicals” (University of Utah, 2002). E. coli bacteria “can sense and respond to changes in temperature, osmolarity, pH, noxious chemicals, DNA-damaging agents, mineral abundance, energy sources, electron acceptors, metabolites, chemical signals from other bacteria, and parasites” (Meyers and Bull, 2002, p. 555). Bacteria are very sensitive to chemicals – for instance, E. coli bacteria have five different kinds of sensors which they use to detect food. As Di Primio, Muller and Lengeler (2000, pp. 4 – 5) explain, common bacteria like E. coli swim in chemical gradients towards attractants (e.g. glucose) or away from repellents (e.g. benzoate) – a phenomenon known as chemotaxis. Other bacteria display phototaxis and magnetotaxis, or movement in response to light and magnetic fields, respectively (Martin and Gordon, 2001, p. 219). Bacteria possess an elaborate chemosensory signaling pathway, which involves the phosphorylation (combination with phosphorus compounds) of a set of proteins in the cytoplasm of a bacterial cell (Blair, 1995, p. 489).

There are several philosophical questions relating to the sensitive capacities of bacteria. Should we call these capacities bona fide senses? For that matter, what are senses, anyway? Is there a distinction between sensing an object, and being sensitive to (or being affected by) it? And is the possession of senses by an organism a sufficient condition for its having perceptions (which, in common parlance, are mental states), or can an organism have senses without the capacity to have perceptions?”

The article continues with an in-depth philosophical discussion that is quite interesting but probably too abstruse for most readers – I didn’t have the patience to read it through. Is it worthwhile to “translate” obsolete ideas by Aristotle into modern terms, as does the author, or is this merely a source of confusion? You can decide by reading the post.

Bottom line, my comment that bacteria don’t have sense organs is incorrect. Whether they have perceptions is up for grabs, an issue that is addressed in the article.

The Wonderful, and Wonderfully Misleading, Powers of Ten


I was lucky enough to study in my first year of college under the designer/architect Charles Eames, inventor of the molded plywood chair (among many other things). He showed us the first draft of a movie he called “Powers of Ten” which zoomed in and out in a sequence of images depicting what you would see if every ten seconds you multiplied the distance by a factor of ten. The movie moved outward to galactic scales, then inward to atomic particle scales, covering 40 powers of ten. On the trip out, the first version had a neat clock that showed you what percent of the speed of light you were moving. This was dropped from the version referenced.

Eames remade the movie in 1977, advised by a number of scientists including Philip Morrison, a physicist who also narrated the film. You can find it at

Philip Morrison is one of my heroes. He worked on the Manhattan Project and could read a substantial book in a day. He wrote the book reviews during the golden years of Scientific American when Martin Gardner was writing “Mathematical Games” and the magazine featured beautiful pointillist pencil drawings.

The link takes you to the Google Earth blog, unsurprisingly, since Google Earth uses the same technique to zoom you in to your chosen site (except it “only” zooms by 7 powers of ten, i.e. ten million times). Another term for powers of ten is order of magnitude.

Powers of ten is a way of thinking about exponential growth. The concept is a two-edged sword. One edge is an indispensable tool for understanding nature; the other is among the most misleading concepts in modern life. “Powers of Ten” allows us in just a few minutes to visualize the smallest thing we have direct evidence for (quarks) and the largest (super-clusters of galaxies), over 40 powers of ten.

Thinking in terms of powers of ten is routine for mathematicians, scientists and statisticians. But in our daily lives things grow by adding up. We think and act linearly, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and so on. Thinking exponentially you get 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128 and so on. Already in just eight steps, powers of two has outdistanced our thinking by a factor of eight. Using powers of ten, you get 1, 10, 100, 1,000, 10,000, 100,000, 1,000,000, 10,000,000. Eight steps and you go from an individual to nearly the population of New York City.

This huge disparity in modes of thinking can be seen more clearly using examples.

There is a famous Chinese story about a poor man who was granted a wish from the Emperor. He asked that he be given one grain of rice, but added the stipulation that on each successive day, he would receive twice what he had received on the previous day (powers of 2, or doubling). In a month he owned just over a billion grains (230) and it wasn’t long before he owned all the rice in China.

Another often-cited example is lilies on a pond. Let’s say your pond is 750 feet in diameter, which comes out to 10 acres – nice big pond. Let’s assume a lily takes up 1 square foot, and that the number of lilies doubles every year.

You start with one lily, hardly noticeable. After sixteen years, you have just the lily patch you were looking for, covering about about 3/4 of an acre. The next year, however, the lilies cover one-and a half acres and you begin to worry. The next year they cover 3 acres, the year after that 6 acres, and before the end of the next year the entire pond is covered. So it took 16 years to get where you wanted, then less then 3 years to obliterate the pond. This illustration from the wonderful YouTube channel XKCD illustrates the point humorously.


Some wonderful examples that translate a huge power of ten (67 orders of magnitude) can be found illustrated at on one of my favorite YouTube science channels, “Vsauce” narrated by Michael Stevens. The whole 20 minute episode is worth watching, but the examples illustrating a huge power of ten starts at minute 14.

Finally, to illustrate the futility of manned space flight, consider this. It is hard to get a grasp on the sobering fact that the universe is almost empty of matter as we experience it. Of the three components of the mass of our universe, ordinary matter accounts for maybe 2-3 percent, the rest being mysterious “dark matter” and the even more ubiquitous and mysterious “dark energy.”

Our solar system, which compared with outer space is as crowded as a subway platform, is terrifyingly empty. I made a conceptual model of our solar system at a scale of 1 billion to one, set in a place familiar to many. Here is an illustration showing the model:

Manhattan small


Imagine that the sun is a ball about four and one-half feet in diameter, on a pedestal in the Grand Army Plaza in front of the Plaza Hotel at 59th Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan.

The orbit of Mercury, the inmost planet, crosses 5th Avenue a block away, at 60th Street, and is about half the diameter of your little fingernail. Venus at 61th Street and Earth near 62nd street are about the size of your middle fingernail. Our moon is half the size of a pencil eraser and is 15” from the earth.

Mars, another block away, is a little bigger than Mercury. Then there is a gap where the asteroid belt occurs, with the largest asteroid being virtually invisible, the size of a fine grain of sand. Outside the gap is the first of the “giant” gaseous planets, Jupiter, which in this model is the breathtaking size of a large grapefruit, with an orbit that crosses 5th Avenue around 70th Street. Another 7 blocks gets us to softball-sized Saturn. At 95th Street we encounter the orbit of Uranus, which like Neptune at 115th Street is 2” in diameter.

In this model, the orbit of Neptune, now the outermost planet, swings out over the Hudson and into Union City, NJ, then back across the river and down Houston Street, across Brooklyn and Queens passing through the Sunnyside Railroad Yards before crossing the East River back into East Harlem. This is plotted on another Google Earth image:

Manhattan large

Now that you have a sense of the sizes of these bodies and their orbits, try to imagine away everything else: the earth below, New York City, the sky above, and replace it with black emptiness. Just a 4-1/2 foot ball of fire surrounded by tiny spheres slowly orbiting in one plane, the outermost of which is almost 3 miles away and the size of a golf ball. And this is a high density of matter by the standards of the universe.

Within this disk of orbiting motes 5 ½ miles in diameter we humans have traveled the distance from your elbow to your fingertips. Mars is 150 feet away, while the nearest star at this scale is the distance of a trip around the earth, 25,000 miles. We talk a good game about fleeing into the galaxy when the going gets too tough here on earth, but the facts are starkly clear: we will forever need to cling to the nurturing surface of our tiny speck in the vast emptiness that surrounds us.

It pays to keep our nest in good shape, as it is all the home we will ever have.

Sense about Senses

Cannery Row, 1959
Cannery Row, 1959


A sense is a physiological systems that provides information for perception. It is how a brain-body finds out what’s going on inside and outside itself. Most people think of the usual 5 senses that feed information directly to the brain, but there are an indefinite number of others when you consider other systems in the body, some of which bypass the brain altogether.

The first matter that needs to be cleared up is the difference between sensing and perceiving. Perception is sensory input that has been processed. In normal usage perception takes place in the brain, but again we need to expand the definition to include all processing of sense data, no matter where it occurs or what effects it has.

Although most perception is not conscious, it always involves some kind of transformation of the sensed information. For example, the pattern of photons that strike the eye are transformed and processed even before any nerve signals leave the retina. Furthermore, it is possible (indeed common) to perceive things without involving the senses, in dreaming, hallucinating and imagining. An amputee can for example experience pain in a limb that is no longer there (phantom limb syndrome).

My approach is to sort through the various environmental phenomena that do and do not have an effect on the brain-body, and also to see what those effects are. The hidden agenda is to argue why it is highly unlikely that a brain-body can sense certain things that some of my friends and relatives (and many, many other people) think it can. These fall into the general category of “paranormal phenomena,” where the Greek root “para” in this context means “beyond.”

As a card-carrying materialist, I discount paranormal phenomena on the grounds that such a thing cannot exist (if it did, it wouldn’t be paranormal). In this respect, I differ from most skeptics, who twist themselves in knots supporting the notion that science must always be open-minded about the possibility of something new coming along. A common way to express this idea is that science cannot prove something correct, but only prove something wrong. I respectfully disagree, but the argument is long and I may be mistaken. It’s certainly not something that philosophers agree about.

I will go through my list of environmental phenomena that could possibly have an effect on any living thing, with special emphasis on the living things we most admire: us.

Electromagnetic Radiation

Visible light and radiated heat are forms of electromagnetic radiation. Technically, it means energy that is transmitted by massless photons. We have to accept that electromagnetic radiation can be either waves or particles, because in practice they “really” are mathematical expressions. “Waves” and “particles” are merely convenient ways of turning these expressions into something we can manipulate. It is useful to think of short wave-length radiation as photons, but not very useful to think of radio waves in terms of photons. Here’s why.

Different wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation have different effects on organisms. They range from extremely short wavelength gamma rays to extremely long wavelength radio waves, with visible light in the middle. The frequency (rate of vibration) of an electromagnetic wave is the inverse of its wavelength, so gamma rays are high frequency, and radio waves are low frequency.

The energy carried by a photon goes up dramatically as the wavelength gets shorter, and falls off dramatically as it gets longer. Thus a single visible light photon has enough energy to trigger a retinal cell to fire, whereas a typical radio wave photon has such low energy that there may be a trillion of them in a single wave several feet long.

Of particular interest are the specialized sense organs that are “tuned” to certain wavelengths. This naturally implies a complex organism, unlike the vast majority of organisms in this world (bacteria and “archaea”) neither of which have organs.

The many kinds of eyes that have evolved time and again in nature are receptors for radiation that is named visible light because it is, well, visible. Some animal eyes can detect “near ultraviolet” light, which has wavelengths just too short for us to see, and some animal eyes can detect “near infrared” light, with wavelengths just too long for us to see. Each kind of eye has its own spectrum of sensed radiation. Birds for example have eyes that respond to color very much as ours do, whereas dogs do not.

Luckily, the molecules in our atmosphere block harmful forms of radiation, which is why we are alive. It is transparent to a wide range of radio waves down to the wavelength that might cook us, where it becomes opaque. Just below that, a window opens to let in heat and light, and just enough ultraviolet to give us sunburns or fade fabrics. The degradation of the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere has allowed more ultraviolet to get through, which is not good for us or other living things. The diagram shows the frequencies that are blocked by the atmosphere.

Atmospheric attenuation of electromagnetic radiation (Oregon State lecture notes from web)
Atmospheric attenuation of electromagnetic radiation (Oregon State lecture notes from web)

Around 40- 45 percent of the sun’s radiated energy that reaches the earth is in the infrared, depending on sky conditions. Beyond infrared are microwaves, with just the right wavelengths to cause water molecules to boil, which is how they cook food, so they can cook us as well. Luckily, microwaves of the cooking frequencies are blocked by our atmosphere or the dots on the microwave oven window.

The next-shorter waves than ultraviolet light are X-rays, which pass through different tissues in different amounts, helping us to see inside our bodies They cause cancer if you get too much of them. And gamma rays, the shortest ones, are destructive to living tissue, which is one reason you don’t spend much time around highly radioactive materials.

Summarizing, we have a specialized organ for detecting one bit of the electromagnetic spectrum, visible light. Short, destructive frequencies from outer space are blocked by our atmosphere, but we are vulnerable to man-made radiation in those wavelengths.

We are bathed in long-wavelength radio waves, with too little energy to harm us, even right next to a transmitter. In the worst case, the risk is less than leakage from a microwave oven, which is pretty small. We have a lot of other things to worry about, believe me. Note: electric fields from power lines are something else, discussed below.

Physical Media and Objects

Air, water and solid objects transmit sound and other pressure waves such as wind or the shock waves from supersonic jets and explosions. We sense sound with our ears, and other pressure waves affect various sense organs including the balance sensing machinery in our ears (the vestibular system), pressure (touch) sensors in our skin and sensors that detect motion at joints. We also feel air motion with the touch receptors of our skins. Special receptors register coolness when water evaporates from our skin, when the wind blows on us, or when we are immersed in a cold liquid. Yet others sense heat directly from air or hot objects, and from infrared radiation (from the sun or hot source such as a fire).

Heat and cold also trigger signals from pain receptors. When you touch a hot or cold object, the pain signal shoots quickly to the brain to cause you to let go, and only later do you know whether it was hot or cold. Colliding with or handling objects can trigger a whole battery of touch, pain, joint position and balance machinery. Whether animals can detect earthquakes before they happen is controversial, except immediately before, when they detect the preliminary effects before we do.

Our mouths and noses have taste, odor and pain receptors that help us eat and drink safe and nourishing things and  avoid toxic things. Our sense of smell detects all sorts of chemicals in the air, an ability that other creatures such as dogs and rodents use much more than we do. Just for comparison, we typically have about 6 million odor receptors, while a dog might have 300 million, with a proportional amount of the brain devoted to odor perception.

Odor receptors are interesting because they are direct extensions of neurons from the brain, unlike vision where the retinal cells are many steps removed from the final brain cells that register what we are seeing. Our sense of taste detects only 5 distinct classes chemicals (sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and umami); most of the “taste” of food comes from odor, texture, pain and temperature sensors. Many creatures in water sense various chemicals, and even the gradient of a chemical. We can taste water just as we can taste food.

Our various senses involved in eating and smelling can detect chemicals that were present and important when our senses evolved. Today there are tens of thousands of man-made chemicals in our environment, some of which are toxic to varying degrees, alone or in combination. We can directly sense some of them, but not most of them. This makes us very nervous. Luckily, we can learn certain chemicals to seek or avoid because our brains continue to develop from the moment of conception to maturity. Unluckily, we are built to crave tastes that were in short supply when the senses evolved, but now are very cheap, notably sugar, salt and fat, with predictable results.

Each type of odor or taste sensor is specially designed to glom onto a specific type of molecules. When it does, it changes shape, sends a signal to the brain, lets the molecule go, changes back to its original shape and waits for another one.

The five iconical senses
The five canonical senses (wiki commons)

If you stretch the definition of “sense,” you can argue that our immune system senses invading bacteria, viruses and parasites. The information is not sent directly to the brain, but is used by various other cells to fight off the infection. Sooner or later the brain gets an indirect message about the battle because you feel crappy.

Fast Molecules and Particles

Various kinds of molecules and elementary particles whiz about and either strike us or pass through us. Particles are distinct from the photons that carry the electromagnetic force in that they have mass, while photons don’t (one or two other particles are or may be massless, but they are not relevant to this discussion). They are distinct from the molecules we detect with our noses and mouths because they are moving very fast and are minuscule by comparison.

Radioactive materials emit Beta particles (fast electrons) and Alpha particles (helium nuclei) that can harm living tissues. Powerful cosmic rays (high-energy protons and atomic nuclei, from unknown sources) luckily don’t normally strike us because we are protected by the earth’s magnetic field, but a few get through and collide with molecules in the atmosphere to produce a shower of particles that can damage tissue. Neutrinos, probably the most common particles in the universe, pass through almost all atoms (which are almost entirely  empty space) without interacting with them, which is why it is extremely difficult to detect neutrinos. Trillions of neutrinos pass through your body every second.

If you become part of an electrical circuit, electrons will stream through your body, causing a shock or convulsions. This occurs because our nerves operate with very small electrical currents, and when you overload them, they react violently. Positrons (positively charged electrons) can be created and focused on the brain to illuminate brain processes. Radioactive materials are also used for various medical purposes such a treating cancer, tracing metabolism or tracking blood flow. But no sensations are involved, only direct effects on tissues.


We are immersed in various kinds of fields. Fields can only be understood mathematically, and I don’t have the math and most likely neither do you. You can get a sense of a magnetic field by scattering iron filings on a piece of paper over a permanent magnet, as many do in high school experiments. Fields transmit forces. For example; the magnetic field transmits a force that causes a compass needle to swing, while the gravitational field transmits the force of gravity.

Iron filings on paper over a permanent magnet.
Iron filings on paper over a permanent magnet.

The most important field is earth’s gravitational field. Our bodies are designed for the amount of gravity we experience on the earth’s surface, and without that force acting on us we may get a form of motion sickness, which is why astronauts need a few days to acclimate themselves. On the moon, you can leap very high; on a bigger planet, you would have to crawl because you couldn’t support yourself. We don’t have a true “gravity” sense; instead we have a sense of balance that helps us cope with sideways forces as well as gravity. We also have pressure sensors in our joints and our skin that directly register the effects of gravity, as it presses us against objects.

We cannot detect the earth’s magnetic field, but some birds, insects and other animals can, and use it to navigate – no one is quite sure exactly how, but they are close to finding out. Gravitational waves are so weak by the time they get to us that only recently (2016) have they been detected, triumphantly supporting Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Electrical fields in the brain can be detected, and magnetic fields that make temporary changes in the brain allow us to detect and locate brain activity.

Electrical fields are sensed by certain fish that live in the dark of the deep sea. They can actually “see” prey and mates with these fields. Electrical fields can affect us, even if we can’t sense them directly. Powerful electrical fields can disorient our brains during electro-convulsive shock therapy, and any powerful electrical field can hurt or kill us, as when lightning strikes nearby. It is unlikely that the electrical fields from power lines or cell phones affect us, but they might – it is hard to tell because the effects are so small. Again, we have a lot more important things to worry about.

In any case, we don’t “sense” these because we don’t have special nerves dedicated to receiving information from electrical fields. The molecules in our bodies directly react to electrical fields, just as they do to Gamma rays or X-rays, without their being sensed by a sense organ.

On the cutting edge there is some question about whether we can detect and use quantum fields. If so, it is very likely that the process will be entirely internal.

Closing Remarks

I hope this gives you some sense of what “sense” is all about. It goes without saying that science has found zero evidence for any other senses, and that if any new senses are discovered, they will have to detect one or the other of the outside forces I have described above. For example, it is possible, although unlikely, that we have a weak ability to extract information from certain kinds of electrical or magnetic fields. Extremely sensitive equipment has not yet detected any such thing so far.

There is no last word in science, but the options become more and more restricted the more we know, which means any future senses we discover will be extremely subtle. Those who believe in paranormal senses pounce on this to claim that only special people (usually themselves or someone they know) are able to sense these imaginary things. Thousands of careful tests have failed, over and over, but believers, who operate with faith and hope, are not deterred by scientific evidence.

I discuss elsewhere the relation between those who believe in non-physical phenomena (such as souls) and those who like me believe only in physical phenomena. Conflicts arise when those who believe in non-physical things get anxious about their beliefs and misuse the scientific belief system for support. What’s wrong with just believing in non-physical phenomena? Why pretend to support them with science?

In any case, if there is a subtle sense we have not detected, it is likely many people will have it, or it would not have remained in the gene pool. It is highly unlikely that anything as complex as a sense organ could evolve spontaneously in one person. Such things take time, and thus affect many people.

Once again, there is a huge difference between what we sense (information that hits the sense organs) and what we perceive (information from sense organs or internal processes that has been transformed in some way). Perception transforms raw sense data into forms that trigger actions, memories, emotions, imagery and the like. Perception can result from brain processes that imitate sense data, as in hallucinations, dreams and imagination. It is very easy to perceive something that doesn’t exist outside the brain that invents it.

Bottom line, if you know of any new phenomenon in nature that could be detected by a sense organ, please contact your nearest physicist, who will be anxious to hear about it.

April 20, 2016