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

Energy Use in USA, China and India

TOPIC  (approx data for 2015) USA CHINA INDIA
Population in millions 320 1,364 1,275
Area in million square miles 3.8 3.7 1.3
People per square mile 84 369 979
Energy consumption (annual gallons of oil equivalent per person) 2,200 570 137

It seems to me that these stats explain a lot about why the future will not look anything like the present.  Our energy consumption stats are similar to those of other western democracies, although they typically have more renewables in the mix.

I once found a stat on income inequality between countries, can’t find it for the moment, noting that the poorest 25% of Americans are richer than the wealthiest 25% of Indians. Can’t recall whether this is income or wealth inequality – they are different.

A New Way to Think about Art

What we consider art has a staggering range and undefined limits. The oldest art form for which we have evidence is body painting; red ocher has been found in ancient sites well before the evolution of Homo sapiens. It is still a popular art, revived in the 1960’s by Veruschka, the tall German model noted for being painted in the nude so that she blended into her surroundings. The newest form I know of is social practice art, in which you do good works and call it art.

Veruschka as a rock
Veruschka as a rock

Art, craft, artifact and decoration blend seamlessly: it is a hopeless task to draw lines between them. Commercial art blends with “fine” art blends with graffiti. Everything we use is designed, and as an architect I would be quite offended if you excluded design from the realm of art. Yet is a cereal box art? How about a Hummer? Is there anything in our lives that hasn’t in some way been “made special,” to use a term invented by Ellen Dissanayake. Is there such a thing as a purely functional human-made artifact?

This raises the issue of quality. I venture to insist that late Mozart or Beethoven plumbed the depths of the human condition in their music, and that the paintings of Thomas Kinkade plumb the depths of kitsch, but Kinkade left an estate of $66 million and both the composers struggled to make a living (as have all but a handful of musicians then and now).

So we move on to popular versus “serious” art. I find much to admire in both genres, and much to criticize. But popular art is well-named if we compare a rock concert that can fill a stadium at $100 a seat with the struggles by the excellent chorale in which I sing to persuade 800 people to spend $30 to listen to Mozart.

Cinema, TV, video and still photography are new and vibrant worlds of art. No one would deny that acting before the camera is a form of art, yet does that apply to the most widely viewed cinematic genre, pornography? Are cat videos on YouTube a form of art? Why not? What about the snapshots you took of the family last weekend? What about TV ads?

Science brings in an entirely different set of issues. The Hubble telescope eXtreme Deep Field (XDF) image, created by combining 10 years of observations of a tiny patch of the sky, shows about 5,500 galaxies, some reaching back over 90% of the age of the universe. It is awe-inspiring. By far the most striking images I have seen in the last few decades are of natural phenomena and of computer-generated mathematical constructs such as the Mandelbrot set shown below.


And so we come to the concept of the sublime, which to the 18th Century philosopher Edmund Burke contrasted with beauty in arousing horror as well as awe. A lot of artists have spent a lot of energy scaring the hell out of people.

It took me a long time to register that beauty was something quite separate from art. A woman can be beautiful without being a work of art. However, she can dress, walk and apply makeup artfully. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, yet there are cultural norms of beauty, and even (so claim some investigators) cross-cultural norms of beauty. One of these often cited is the widespread preference for landscapes formed by open spaces with clumps of trees and rolling topography. Another is a preference for bodily symmetry. Much in nature is beautiful, and much art is ugly.

Probably the most confounding use of the term art is to describe anything done well. There is no end to this; the concept can be applied to any act from a feat of athletics, crime or warfare, through sex and other bodily functions, to cooking and housekeeping.

Yet another aspect is the treacherous swamp of intentionality. Duchamp famously labeled a commercial urinal as art, and it as ever since been considered one of the greatest works of the 20th Century. Andy Warhol pulled everyone’s leg with his deliberately tacky images of soup cans and Marilyn Monroe, which have become priceless.

The original "Fountaine" by Duchamp. It was lost, likely discarded by the photographer (Stieglitz)
The original “Fountaine” by Duchamp. It was lost, likely discarded by the photographer (Stieglitz)

Art has from the earliest times had political, economic and social functions. It has always been closely associated with religion and power, and been a form of wealth and social status. Marxists make much of this aspect.

So the concepts of art, beauty, sublimity, skill, intention, emotion, spirituality and power are all mixed up. I have thought about this mess for a long time, and have come to believe that we need to step outside the usual lines of thinking. I am not alone: an increasing number of scientists have entered this morass, but with a refreshing new take on the subject. They are asking why we make art.

If humans spend an enormous amount of their resources and energy doing things skillfully, making useless artifacts and embellishing everything they touch, we need to ask why evolution has allowed such a thing to happen. Doesn’t it make sense that skill, beauty, awesomeness and embellishment have a function (or more likely, several functions) in support of our physiological, social and behavioral economy?

I think so, but trying to decipher what these functions might be is not a task for the faint of heart. Not being faint of heart, at least in this arena, I will tackle the issues in other essays. For now, have respect for the complexities, and stop equating art with Rembrandt, Shakespeare, Mozart … or Thomas Kinkade.

Shedding My Homunculus

I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this. -Emo Phillips

My religious career must be typical for many of my generation. My parents were unreflective about their Presbyterian/Methodist religious ideas, and shared the prejudice against Catholics, Episcopalians (closet Catholics), and Jews common in the Midwest before the Second World War (and after). My father, from a farm background with no pretensions to gentility, preferred Baptists. Mother, deeply disappointed by her failure to rise higher in the middle class, detested the noisy Baptists, and was probably drawn toward the Episcopalians, although put off by the Catholic overtones. They compromised in the gentile Presbyterian middle ground, along with all their close friends (some were Methodists). I don’t know where the Lutherans stood in their Pantheon.

I went to Sunday School, of which I remember only identifying a gorgeous Brown Thrasher and a Cardinal in the Omaha alley on the way to church, poring over the stuffed bird collection in the Parish Hall, and doing neat craft things like making Easter baskets out of kraft paper and library paste. After the war, my family migrated to the LA area, along with millions of other Midwesterners, including every one of my parents’ close friends. We lived first in beautiful Santa Monica, where I was happy for several years.

Responding to a periodic wanderlust, and to get my father closer to his work, we moved to a dingy garden apartment in a decaying part of Hollywood, near which was the dumpy West Hollywood Presbyterian Church, with an evangelistic pastor named Antisdale who plagued my dreams for many years. A teenager, I was drawn into the youth program, trying to build a social life. It got more and more evangelistic, and I, being too naïve to adopt a saving hypocrisy, was drawn deeper and deeper toward a Commitment. I hated the idea, but there was no way out: Jesus’ existence implied my service. I was doomed to a life of embarrassing prayer sessions.

I took piano with a Miss Mikova, who lived and taught in a wonderful Modernist home in Hollywood, bathed in light through a bank of glazed terrace doors. Driving me to my lesson one day during my 14th year, my jazz musician brother, by this time a card-carrying atheist, continued an ongoing family argument about religion by noting that Jesus may have been an invention, an amalgam of any number of charismatic figures. I grabbed the lifeline and pulled myself to shore without a second thought. Jesus’ existence implied my service, so if Jesus was a myth, I was free. That night I refused to say blessing at dinner. I am sure my mother’s ghastly silence was occupied by the thought that my brother had done the devil’s work yet again, polluting the mind of her precious youngest child, her last hope for social legitimacy. She had after all shrewdly named me after a virtuous school-mate of my brother’s who went on to become a minister.

Atheists are fully preoccupied with conventional religion, often being more devout as an atheist than the average Sunday Christian or Saturday Jew. After all, an atheist accepts the definition of not being something everyone else is assumed to be — a theist or a deist or some other -ist.  I remained an outspoken atheist, refusing once even to play Christmas carols for the office party when I worked for Percy Goodman in New York. He and his more well-known brother Paul Goodman were archetypal Jewish intellectuals for whom Christmas carols were proud symbols of moral independence – he was not amused.

I was intensely uncomfortable on the few occasions in which I found myself in church, and remained so until I met my wife. Her family was and remains solid southern Episcopalian, and if I wanted to marry this wonderful and beautiful woman, religion would have to be part of  the bargain. I survived my re-immersion in church, and grew to like the rector who married us and many of his successors at the lovely 18th Century Virginia country parish church.

Children appeared, my wife took them to Sunday School at Christ Church Cambridge, Episcopal, (Massachusetts, not England) and from time to time I stopped working long enough to join her.  We had many friends who went there, but I remained true to my disdain for the words of the liturgy, adamantly refusing to mouth the Creed or go to the rail at communion, although I certainly sang lustily enough, paying little attention to the words.

The time finally came when the kids learned to do what their father and mother did and not what they said, and it became apparent that if I did not attend church regularly the kids would revolt and stay home with me. Sunday School held no particular joys for them, as they had made few friends there, but they would go if we did. I struggled with myself, finally arguing that, should a dictator try to shut the churches, I would man the barricades; and therefore, it was inconsistent of me to turn my back on an institution for which I, at least in theory, was ready to lay down my life, or at least throw a few rocks. I joined the choir.

This great event was possible for me only because the interim rector, a wonderfully warm woman, assured me that many worse hypocrites than I went to the altar, and that I was unlikely to be struck down by a thunderbolt if I pretended a piety I lacked. I indeed was not struck down, and realized with no little shame that I was disappointed.

Those ten years of involvement at Christ Church were wonderful years in which I made many good friends, headed a committee, learned to sing better, and gradually cleared my mind of the confusion between belief and experience. I could have a religious experience, as good a one as any contemporary Christian ritual allows, and not have to subscribe to an outdated mythology. I ceased being an atheist, and simply became religious. If someone wished to call me an atheist because, in their view, I didn’t believe in what everyone else in church believed in, that was their business. They would be surprised to find out what their co-religionists really believed.

I found I had many companions in my adventure into the experience of religion, and ceased my intolerance for others who found the church important in their lives. The church was filled with people in various stages of confusion about life and its meaning, each searching for something, each dependent to one degree or another upon the lovely rituals, the music, the symbolism, the Bible’s poetry, and each other; and all were grateful for the time to think about ethical matters for an entire morning once a week.

I paint this history as a background for a moment of epiphany. As I read and thought about the paradoxical need almost everyone has for religious beliefs that make no sense to a modern Westerner, I gradually extricated myself from the untenable if almost universal belief that there was a little man – my Homunculus – that must reside in my brain in order for me to be me. Whatever one called it — consciousness, a soul, a mind — I became convinced it can’t exist outside the context of neuronal and hormonal activity.

I was thoroughly convinced rationally, yet I had not taken the crucial next step and internalized this reasoning. I had to face up to my real beliefs, that I and everyone else was made of the same stuff as stars and rocks, the same bosons and hadrons, the same molecules. Stuff is what everything is, and that is all there is — stuff and how it is organized and transformed. The dualistic alternative was simply untenable. That alternative had formed the foundation for my thinking, breathing, living, feeling, for 50 years, and I had to shed it, like a molting crustacean. What kind of vulnerable creature would be exposed if this protective carapace were discarded?

Christ Church is a fine, simple, wooden structure built in the mid-1700’s, with a vaulted nave, two side aisles, generous arched windows, and a semi-circular apse.  On this occasion, like many others, I entered through the door to the right of the Apse to take my place in the Chancel for choir rehearsal. It was a lovely day. As I walked into the sunlit church, I took the final step into a fully materialistic view of the world. I “realized” — made real to myself — my conviction that everything I thought, that my notion of myself, that everything I imagined and said and saw, was a construction of a network of neurons in my brain. That was all I was, there wasn’t anything else. My precious “me” was an electro-chemical artifact, the byproduct of the metabolism of my brain. Only stuff. It was a devastating moment, and I felt emptied and depressed. My skills, my loves, my enthusiasms, my despairs — all were chemical artifacts. How could anything take on any deep meaning, now that it had been reduced to the automatic operation of some chemical machinery? How was I anything but a meaningless computation?

It isn’t possible to reproduce all the confused emotions I felt, but only to note that I felt them, and was in a mild state of despair. Yet it WAS mild, and it lasted a remarkably short time. I never needed to retrace my steps, and never have. I want to recount one of the lines of thought that helped me through this door in my life. The flaw in my despairing argument was the “only” — that I was “only” an artifact of my chemistry.
There are at least 10 billion neurons — nerve cells — in my brain. Each of these cells has an average of 10,000 connections with other cells, called synapses, making a total of 100 trillion connections. Most of these cells have within them the entire book of instructions about how to make me, my entire genome. Each of these 10 billion neurons is comparable to a city in its complexity.

Much of this machinery is dedicated to moving electrical impulses down the axon of the cell, its main trunk line, by pumping chemicals in and out of pores in the cell’s wall. When these impulses reach a terminus, a great cascade of chemical changes occurs, with pores opening and closing, chemicals being carried in and out in little vesicles, until at the other side of the terminus, the signal continues in another nerve cell. Or maybe elsewhere in the same cell. These cascades of activity move down the cell and across the synapses at an average rate of about 45 MPH, but since they usually haven’t far to go, many such cascades can occur in the 10th of a second it takes someone to react to a new stimulus. Chemical processes in cells take place in billionths of a second.

So this “only” turns out to refer to perhaps the most complex assembly of stuff in the universe. Within my brain stuff, I might remember the essence of perhaps 1,000 pieces of music, 500 people, 20,000 English words and who knows how many plants and animals. I can design buildings of indefinite size, write an essay, throw and catch a ball, draw a convincing image of almost anything (given enough time), swim, sing. There are 7,000,000,000 of me, each one unique, each convinced that he or she is in some way special, identifiable, worth saving, worth feeding, worth contributing to the next generation, each with a story, a fascinating story, many fascinating stories.

There is miracle enough in a piece of my brain the size of a rice grain to satisfy the most insatiable craving for the impossible. There is no need to add something ineffable to turn myself into a person or to infuse nature with magic. But this was a long and complicated journey for me, and I have great respect for the different journeys made by others.

And very little patience with proselytizing atheists.

The Infamous Plane of the Ecliptic

The Infamous Plane of the Ecliptic

The Plane of the Ecliptic or simply the ecliptic (as I shall call it) is infamous in our family because I have tried to explain it to various family members with very limited success. So I have thought hard how I can explain something that requires some spatial visualization to the many people who think differently.  But maybe this will help. There is a short quiz at the end of you are of such a mind.

Imagine yourself sitting comfortably all wrapped up on a heated chair, at the north pole. We are starting at the north pole because it greatly simplifies the relationship between the plane of the ecliptic and the plane you are sitting on, in this case an ice flow.

The heavenly bodies are of course very far away, but like the ancients, we can imagine that they are all attached to a celestial sphere. You are at the center of the sphere. The sphere is divided up into 88 constellations. For the ancients, the constellations were collections of stars that they remembered by imagining figures defined by the collection. Everyone is familiar with the big dipper, or great bear, that rotates around the north star. In fact all the constellations rotate around the north star, but we will come to that shortly.

For astronomers, a constellation is one of 88 irregular areas that precisely divide up the heavens. (Factoid from Google: there are 14 persons, 9 birds, 2 insects, 19 land animals, 10 water creatures, 29 inanimate objects, a head of hair, a serpent, a dragon, 2 centaurs, a flying horse and a river – which adds up to more than 88 because some constellations have more than one object in them). You can find a map at Click “Dark on Light” to see it clearly. It is laid out like a Mercator projection, so the little dipper stretches across the entire top like Greenland. The ecliptic is the sine-wave shaped line across the middle of the map (there is another line, the galactic equator, that follows the Milky Way, not relevant to the present discussion).

Twelve of these constellations make up the zodiac that forms the basis for astrology. Click on “show only zodiacal constellations” to see them on the map. Astrology is complete nonsense, but Newton spent a lot more time on astrology than he did on astronomy. These constellations are important because they lie on the ecliptic, by definition. We will see why shortly.

As the earth spins daily, the parade of constellations seems to move around the north star, Polaris, from east to west. We know this is an illusion and that the stars are fixed (at least relative to our solar system, and over a short time period – they all move at fantastic velocities). But we can pretend that the heavens rotate around our fixed location.

OK, just as the earth has an equator, so does the heavenly sphere. It is called the celestial equator and it is located where the plane you are sitting on at the north pole intersects the celestial sphere. If you were sitting at the equator, the celestial equator would be an arc that runs straight overheard from horizon to horizon. Polaris is near the north celestial pole, which by definition aligns with the earth’s axis.

To follow a star with a telescope anywhere on earth, all you have to do is set the telescope up so it is perpendicular to the north celestial pole, then set a clock mechanism to move the telescope so it would make a complete circle once a day.
As you well know, the sun, moon and planets (and all the other objects in our solar system) seem to move against the backdrop of stars. Our goal here is to figure out how they move, and the ecliptic plays a key role.

The ecliptic  is the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun. The centers of the earth and sun are always in the plane, by definition. All the other large objects in the solar system orbit close to the plane, and sometimes cross the plane. The solar system is a flat disk because that’s the way solar systems form out of gas clouds.

The earth’s axis (and therefore the celestial reference system) is tilted relative to the plane of the earth’s orbit (the ecliptic). It is this tilt that creates the seasons. When the north pole is tilted toward the sun, we have warm weather, while New Zealanders have cold weather.
The earth’s tilt is about 23.4 degrees, making it easy to remember. It is no accident that the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn are at latitude 23.4 north and south respectively, nor that the Arctic and Antarctic Circles are 23.4 degrees of latitude from the poles. Figure 1 shows why these are important latitudes.
Figure 1

On any given day, all the planets and the sun and the moon will be at a (relatively) fixed point on the celestial sphere. Obviously they are all moving, but for our purposes, we can freeze them in place for a day and see how they move. And that’s easy, because like the stars and galaxies, they move in a circle around the earth’s axis.

So every body in our solar system on a given day are located in one constellation or another (except for comets and very close objects that become meteors).  For instance as I write this in April 2016, the sun is in Aires (the ram) and the moon is in Pisces (the fish).

As mentioned above, the ecliptic runs through the constellations that form the zodiac. 2,500 years ago there were 12 constellations (or signs) in the zodiac, and for astrologers there still are. Astronomers, who being scientists stubbornly rely on evidence-based fact, note that the sun’s path now runs through 13 constellations (it just clips Ophiochus during December). This is because of the precession of the equinoxes. As this does not concern us, look it up in Wikipedia.

Furthermore, the sun will lie somewhere on the ecliptic, by definition. The moon and the 7 planets also lie close to the ecliptic, but only occasionally right on it. When the full moon happens to drift into the plane of the ecliptic, we have a lunar eclipse, and similarly when the new moon is in the plane, we have a solar eclipse. We will assume for simplicity that all bodies in the solar system except comets lie exactly on the ecliptic.

If you could see the ecliptic drawn on the celestial sphere, how would it look during a typical day? Well the four following diagrams show how the plane of the ecliptic (in red) looks as the earth spins through a complete day. Each follows the other at 6 hour intervals. Remember, we are still at the north pole. The blue plane is the ground plane you are sitting on – or rather the ice plane!
Ecliptic Left
Figure 2
Ecliptic Back
Figure 3
Ecliptic Right
Figure 4
Ecliptic Front
Figure 5

I hope you can see that the ecliptic plane will seem to wobble like a coin or a dinner plate or a vinyl record dropped at an angle onto a table, making one wobble per day. But the diagram has some strange notations, and I need to explain their significance.

What is meant by the “daily orbit of the equinoxes”? My wife logically insists that an equinox is a time, not a location. Well, the time of the vernal equinox is set by when the sun reaches a certain point in the heavens known at the vernal equinox or the first point of Aires (because the vernal equinox was in the constellation Aires in ancient times – it is now in Pisces). So it’s scientifically accurate to use the name of the time to designate a point on the celestial sphere.

What happens to the solar system bodies during a year? We can use the sun as an example, but all the bodies do the same thing. If you took a picture of the sun at noon every day for a year, it would appear to bounce up and down like a yo-yo, in a sinusoidal motion, gradually slowing to a stop at the solstices (which means “sun standing still”) and moving up or down fast at the equinoxes.

So each year the sun makes a complete trip along the ecliptic, and each day it, along with the ecliptic and all the heavenly bodies makes a complete circle around earth. It is important to keep these two motions separate in your mind.

All the major bodies in the solar system make a complete trip along the ecliptic, but at different rates. Mars makes the trip in about 2 years, while Neptune takes 165 years.  The moon takes one month. Mercury and Venus, because they are inside our orbit, oscillate back and forth around the sun, and follow the sun on its annual trip. At its furthest distance, Venus is 45 degrees from the sun, while Mercury is 25 degrees.

Aside from the weather, the north pole is a very good place to watch the stars and planets, because the geometry is so simple. Things get interesting as you move south, let’s say to Philadelphia (or Naples or Beijing, which are also at 40 degrees north). What happens is that the celestial equator is no longer the same as your horizon, and the celestial pole (up near Polaris) is no longer straight up. Check out the following diagram:

40 degrees north
Figure 6

At the north pole we had two reference systems, the celestial system and the ecliptic. Now we have a third reference system, which is what makes thinking about the ecliptic hard. The ground plane of the  new system is shown in green (you are looking at the back) and it is tilted 50 degrees relative to the celestial system. Why 50 degrees and not 40 degrees? Well, imagine that you take a fast trip from the North Pole to Philadelphia. You would travel 50 degrees, which brings you to latitude 40 degrees because there are 90 degrees from the pole to the equator. – 90 minus 50 equals 40.

To recover your the simpler orientation you had at the North Pole, all you have to do it lie back at an angle of 50 degrees from straight overhead (or 40 degrees up from the horizon) and voila! you are back at the North Pole!

If you trace the orbit of the summer and winter solstices and the equinoxes on the celestial sphere, you would have drawn something that looks like a globe of the earth, with the path of the equinoxes being the equator, the path of the summer solstice being the Tropic of Cancer, and the path of the winter solstice being the Tropic of Capricorn. So let’s modify the last diagram to just show the portion of these three paths that you can see without looking through the earth:
40 degrees north simple
Figure 7

Now every day the ecliptic will wobble back and forth between these two lines in the sky representing the Tropics, just like it did at the North Pole.

So what happens if you go all the way to the equator? Well, no surprise, the celestial equator and the two “celestial tropics” will be perpendicular to your local horizon and you will have to lie on your back to reconstruct what you saw at the North Pole. Polaris will be at the horizon, and the corresponding south celestial pole will be at the opposite horizon.

40 degrees north simple equator

Figure 8

Back at Philadelphia, we can make a few observations. The equinoxes  meet the local horizon due east and west. If the sun is at an equinox, the day will be 12 hours long, and the sun will set directly west. But since the whole reference system is tilted 50 degrees, it will set at a 50 degree angle to the horizon. This is readily seen if you watch a sunset carefully.

The following diagram shows what the three paths look like at various latitudes:
Figure 9

The dotted lines running across the paths represent hours of the day. The plan projection is there for information – it’s not essential. Here is the celestial sphere for latitude 40 north blown up and rotated for a better view (it is the same as Figure 7).

40 north skydome detail
Figure 10

The angle of sunrise and sunset at the solstices (32 degrees north and south of east-west in this case) is specific to the location. At the equator, it is 23.4 degrees. At Philadelphia it is 32 degrees and sunrise is at 5:40 AM.  In Stockholm the angle is 64 degrees, and sunrise is at 2:40 AM. At the Arctic Circle it is 180 degrees, which means that sunrise and sunset occur at the same moment, when the sun is directly north at the horizon. Every location north of the Arctic Circle has continuous day on Midsummer Night, which is a little confusing.

The hardest part of this picture is that every day the ecliptic does a complete wobble, and during its orbital period each heavenly body does the same wobble – the moon once a month, the sun once a year, Neptune once every 165 years.
Just to complete the picture, I show the ecliptic superimposed on Figure 9. This diagram shows the condition of the ecliptic at a time when the summer solstice occurs at noon. This happens at a different place every year, and sets the time of the solstice.
That is why the dates of the solstices and equinoxes vary. If it happened to occur near the international date line, it might differ by a day depending on which side it occurred. The likelihood of it occurring at your location depends on how precisely you define your position – if it is defined as one degree wide, it will occur on average once every 360 years, since there are 360 degrees of longitude.

40 north skydome detail with ecliptic
Figure 11

As Richard Feynman is credited with saying “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” I hope you don’t feel the same way about the ecliptic!


1.    If the moon is full and the sun is at the winter solstice, where is the moon?
A.    Near the autumnal equinox
B.    Near the summer solstice
C.    Varies year to year

2.    At the north pole, is it possible to see both equinoxes and both solstices at the same time? – yes or no

3.    At the time of an equinox, the sun rises and sets very close to directly east and west at every point on earth except the poles (where it never sets)- true or false

4.    At the time of the summer solstice, the sun sets further north of west in Boston than it does in Philadelphia – true or false

5.    The ecliptic is so named because that is the only place that an eclipse can occur – true or false

6.    The number of degrees between the north pole and straight overhead is the same as your latitude – true or false

7.    How likely is it that the time of the summer solstice will occur at noon (sun time) within 1 degree of longitude from your location?
A.    Extremely unlikely
B.    Every year
C.    One year out of 180
D.    None of the above

8.    When and where is the sun directly overhead? (choose all that apply)
A.    Anywhere between the two Tropics, at solar noon, at certain times of the year
B.    On the equator at solar noon during the equinoxes.
C.    On the Tropic of Capricorn at solar noon during our winter solstice.



Answers: 1.B  2.No  3.True  4.True  5.True  6.False – it is 90 minus your latitude  7.C  8.A, B and C

Seeing Lightning with Your Ears


In these parlous times it is a distracting relief to explore the magic of our natural world. The thunderstorms that entertain and sometimes scare us provide one source of magic, lightning. Thinking about lightning in a different way can enable you to appreciate the effects of this mysterious phenomenon.

What causes lightning? Although scientists know a lot of details about lightning, they are still baffled by the process that creates it. The first requirement is a cumulonimbus cloud or thunderstorm. These are ordinary cumulus clouds that shoot up to high altitudes (typically 4 miles, but sometimes as much as 14 miles), within which occur violent up- and down-drafts. The top of a large cumulonimbus cloud typically has an “anvil head,” a flat extension of the cloud that can extend for miles in front of the cloud and is the source of “bolts from the blue,” about which more in the postscript.

A second requirement is an electrical field, which is created when processes within a thundercloud (not well understood) cause different portions of the cloud to develop negative and positive charges. Lightning occurs when a short-circuit is created between the negatively and positively charged regions (either within the cloud, or from cloud to ground). Most lightning discharges occur within or between cloud and are termed intra-cloud (IC) lightning. They are less well studied than cloud-to-ground (CG) lightning strikes.

A CG bolt starts when electrons are accelerated from cloud to ground in a “stepped leader” that creates the jagged channel through which the lightning discharge travels. Very fast electrons create the channel by ionizing a tube of air that is typically a few centimeters in diameter. How the electrons are accelerated to such high velocities is not known. Cosmic rays may initiate the process, but the best theory requires a very high electric field within the cloud, which has not been observed. We will leave this puzzle to the investigators, who are hot on the trail – stay tuned for further discoveries that may finally answer the old question “what causes lightning?”

The electrons pile up and collide with air molecules at the end of each segment in the jagged path. They are moving so fast that they create a burst of X-rays that were first detected in 2001 from artificially induced bolts at an experimental center in Florida (and elsewhere). Each such collision creates several new segments branching off at various angles, with one segment becoming the leader and the rest dissipating – in photos these give a “hairy” appearance to the stroke. The segments of the leaders average about 300 feet long, zig-zagging down until the main leader nears the ground.

The most common CG stroke (called a “beta” bolt) occurs when the bottom of the thundercloud develops a negative charge. This induces a positive charge in the ground that travels along with the cloud, like a shadow. As the stepped leader nears the ground, positively charged streamers rise from high points in the ground until one streamer connects with one leader, creating an ionized tube from within the cloud to the ground. This acts like a conductive wire through the air, which is normally a good insulator.

The theory behind lightning rods is that a sharp point at the top of the roof will create a stronger streamer than those rising from other parts of the roof, and therefore will attract the leader, causing the lightning to run through thick cables to the ground instead of wandering through the structure of the house and causing a fire. There is no solid evidence that lightning rods work as planned. A better form of protection is having taller objects surrounding the building to attract the lightning, but far enough away that the lightning bolt does not jump over to the building.

When the leader is completed, a short circuit occurs during the “return stroke” in which electrons flow from cloud to ground, carrying awesome amounts of electrical power in what is called “negative lightning” or beta bolt, the most common form of CG lightning. Several sequences of leader formation and return stroke typically occur for a second or two, creating the flicker you typically see in the lightning flash. During its brief existence, the lightning heats the surrounding air to a temperature many times that of the sun’s surface. This causes the air to expand in an explosive shock wave that travels about 30 feet out from the bolt. It is the collision of the shock wave with the surrounding air that causes the sound of thunder.

Let’s now focus on the structure of the lightning discharge, and see what we can learn about the structure from the sound it produces. Intra-cloud discharges greatly outnumber CG discharges, and feeding the visible part of a CG lightning bolt is a network of leaders within the cloud that can extend for many miles both horizontally and vertically. So most of the thunder we hear is created within the clouds, from branches running every which way.

From the point of view of a physicist trying to figure out how the process develops, the various steps are sequential, one causing the next. But from the standpoint of an ordinary observer, the entire lightning discharge is instantaneous: the branching network of electrical short-circuits occurs for a second or so, and then stops. Likewise, the thunder is created almost instantaneously, but since the thunder propagates at the speed of sound, we hear it develop over a period of time, something we can take advantage of to visualize the lightning network.

Everyone is familiar with counting the seconds between the flash and the first sound of thunder. But if you pay attention to what you hear, you can picture in your mind the size, shape and location of the branching network of lightning, using your ears as eyes.

Sound takes about 5 seconds to travel a mile (3 seconds per kilometer). If the nearest branch of the lightning network begins 1 mile away and its furthest branch ends 5 miles away, the thunder will start 5 seconds after the lightning flash and continue for 20 more seconds. So the most basic thing you can learn about the network is its overall size, providing the discharges don’t overlap. In an intense storm, the sound of a new discharge begins before the last one has terminated, obscuring the more distant details.

High pitched sounds dissipate faster than low-frequency sound, so sounds that are closer are higher in pitch, brighter and more crackling, while the distant sounds are low rumbles. In addition, the sound dissipates with distance, and you cannot hear thunder generated more than a few miles away. This is an additional clue to picturing the lightning network, analogous to the “atmospheric perspective” that makes distant objects seem hazy. If CG stroke is very close, you will also hear a crackling noise like torn paper just before the very loud bang. This is the sound made by the streamers from the ground rising to meet the stepped leader. Although much weaker than the main bolt, these heat the air enough to form little shockwaves that create the tearing sound.

The shock wave generating the thunder moves outward like an expanding cylinder around each segment of the branching discharge. Now think about the individual segments of the lightning network. If a segment runs across your view, all the sound from the entire length of that segment will reach your ears at the same time, adding up to cause a loud bang. If a segment runs directly away from you, nearly all the sound goes off to the side and you hear almost nothing. Segments that bend away at different angles create more or less sound depending on how sharp the angle is.

The result is that sound from a crooked branch of lightning varies as the sound from each successive segment reaches you, the loudest sounds from segments that run across your view, the least from those running away from you. The biggest bang is created from a vertical CG strike (the trunk of the branching tree) because the striking bolt carries the most power, is long, and all the sound reaches you more or less at the same time. As the thunder “picture” unfolds over time, more and more of the branches will “come into view.” Since there are several branches in a typical lightning network, and possibly several trunks, the resulting sound can be complex.

When a lightning flash occurs, many of us start counting “thousand-one, thousand-two” to mark the seconds. After counting the distance to the first sound, start counting again, noting the timing of the loud bangs and the overall time it takes for the farthest branch to reach your ears. Notice how the nearest sound will be crisp, since the high-frequency crackling will still be audible. As the sound travels further it becomes lower in pitch and less distinct, petering out in a muffled rumble.

With some imagination you can envision the spreading network; if there are one or more CG strikes in the network, you can count the vertical stems. Remember that most flashes will not have a segment that reaches the ground; any loud bang in an intra-cloud discharge will be a long segment running across your view. You can usually tell a CG stroke because it will stand out from the other segments.

Watch the next lightning show with your ears!

About 5% of the CG strokes (1% to 2% of all lightning discharges) are alpha bolts or “positive lightning” (the charge in the cloud is positive, the reverse of normal beta lightning). These travel between the anvils at the top of the tallest cumulonimbus clouds to the ground. They usually occur at the beginning of a storm, and sometimes can travel many miles out in front of the storm, creating a “bolt from the blue.” Because these alpha bolts are many times as powerful as ordinary lightning, they probably cause the most damage. A friend’s country house that burned to the ground from a lightning strike probably was hit by an alpha bolt at the beginning of the storm. The possibility of an alpha bolt in front of the storm is a good reason to leave a golf course when a thunderstorm is nearby, even if the sun is shining.

If you are caught out in a thunderstorm, do not follow the stupid and dangerous Red Cross advice to lie in a ditch, for two reasons. First, you may drown. Most important, you want to create the smallest possible footprint, so lying down is the worst possible strategy. A lightning strike creates millions of volts of electric voltage potential in the ground that falls off rapidly to zero some distance away from the bolt. This means that two points that are different distances from the bolt will have a big difference in voltage. If your feet are spread and a strike lands near you the difference in voltage between one foot and the other can kill you (lying down makes you much more vulnerable). If you are caught in the open, crouch down with your feet close together and avoid standing too close to a lone object that might attract lightning.

Another way of visualizing lightning is to reverse the causality and imagine that a “sound pick-up wave” starts at your location when the lightning flashes, and moves outward in a spherical wave front at the speed of sound. Now form an image of the lightning as a static tree frozen in place. As the sound pick-up wave sweeps over the branches and trunks of the tree, it generates thunder as described above, with the sound getting weaker and lower the farther the wave is from your location.

Introduction to Troubling Essays

Calculating how various Platonic solids relate
More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly. -Woody Allen

These essays document my bleak view of the future. You are welcome, even invited, to ignore them. They won’t help you feel good, and there is nothing much you can do about the outcome. It’s that I need to share these ideas, if only with an imaginary audience. So just stop reading now and consign me to the class of Cassandras who have been predicting the end of civilization for millennia: I won’t object.

Almost 60 years after Roger Revelle showed that CO2 was likely causing the earth to warm, much of the public is finally getting concerned about climate change. Yet global warming is only one address in a suite of interconnected problems that I do not think we can solve.

The immediate manifestation of these interconnected problems is the religion of growth. We have founded the global economy on growth, without taking account that there are limits to growth.

Case in point: we have reached and shot past at least one limit – we are deep into the Sixth Extinction. Just when we have begun to register the extent of our biological treasures, we are frantically destroying them to produce more palm oil for our shampoo.

I am heartsick at what my grandchildren will have to endure, as irreplaceable biological wonders are extinguished wholesale, at a quickening pace.

I am heartsick in particular when I think about the loss of my beloved warblers, those ravishingly beautiful little one-ounce dinosaurs some of whom fly non-stop over thousands of miles of open water to and from their breeding grounds.

And I am deeply ashamed that I, like all Americans, are living off the ravages of the Sixth Extinction and the poverty of billions, consuming far more that our rightful share of resources, in support of a level of personal liberty that is unfortunately the envy of the world.

This way of thinking leads down unexpected paths. Is our liberty worth destroying the planet? How free will we be then? If we cannot use our liberty to save ourselves, what good is it? While you and I are not about to give up our liberty voluntarily, I am pretty sure that whoever is around after I die will have to do so in order to survive.

My fatalism is easiest to justify by our lack of a plan B: no one has come up with a viable economic model that is not based on growth. There are alternative models, but they are pie in the sky, especially in this country. Without a Plan B, I can’t see how we can escape plunging into chaos as we try to grow without limit on a limited planet. It seems to me a simple, devastating equation. I wish someone could persuade me otherwise.

How did we come to such a pass? I have become convinced that the collapse I envision is an inevitable outcome built into the dynamics of life itself, and discuss that idea at length in other essays. That may be the ultimate cause, but there is also a confusing network of proximate causes, including overpopulation, which in turn is a result of science-based public health technology coupled with human nature and cultural biases. Each of us has a favorite causal whipping boy: mine is the lack of an economic Plan B. Yours may be overpopulation or global warming – they are all relatives.

We have to learn to discount the future while still living as though the future will be much like the present, which gets back to the title of my blog. It would be better to plan for the most likely future, but sadly that seems to be beyond us.

Anyhow, have a nice day.

My Love Affair with Steam Locomotives

“I have always loved locomotives passionately. For me they are living creatures and I love them as others love women or horses.”

Arthur Honneger, composer of Pacific 2-3-1

Since early childhood, I have adored trains. I would implore my parents night after summer night to drive to a special spot in Omaha where, at the appointed time (when the train wasn’t late),  the streamliner Eagle, riding behind a diesel on the Missouri Pacific mainline, would emerge round a curve and thrill me with its beautiful striped presence trailing out from the eagle painted on its great nose.  Later, I fell in love with steam locomotives, after reaching an age where the terror of the belching monsters changed slowly over to thrill, but at age 5 or 6, diesels were fine with me — I loved diesel switch engines then as now, if they are the proper kind.


Missouri-Pacific Eagle streamliner, from photo by Tony Howe -


My true love affair with steam locomotives really started in the summer of 1943, just before my 8th birthday.  We spent that summer visiting Aunt Cecil and Uncle Jencks in Ipswich, South Dakota, a farm village 25 miles west of Aberdeen on U.S. Route 12.  It was a flag stop on the Milwaukee mainline, in the section of the line between Aberdeen and Mobridge, where — no surprise — the railroad crossed the Missouri River. Aberdeen seemed very far away to a 7-year-old, and Mobridge, 70 miles to the west, was just a legend.

There was a traditional Main Street running north-south, with a classic one-block downtown complete with ice cream parlor and movie theater. Between the downtown and the railroad station was a block-long stretch of gravel that Google Earth shows is now full of utility buildings, but in my memory is a vacant acreage.

The station is gone, but I reconstruct it from memory as a long Victorian stick-style building, separated from the main line by a narrow wood platform partly covered by a wide overhang of the main roof. A beauty parlor somehow survived in the dusty summer heat on the second floor.  I think I can recall the decorative brackets holding up the great overhang.  It must have been a typical small-town station.

A bay window pushed out into the narrow wood platform on the track side of the station and in that window sat Elliott, the station master.  He was of uncertain age, perhaps 50, and was a famously unmarried curmudgeon.  I started the summer spending much of my day chasing grasshoppers in the gravel next to the station, waiting for the next train, until boredom and curiosity led me to Elliott’s lair.  I asked him a question, and then question after question after question, and he didn’t seem to mind.  Everyone in town was astonished at his patience.  Soon I was a regular visitor in his office, where I swatted flies for my keep, and kept an eagle eye out for the next train, peering down the track from the side window of the office.

Enchanting things happened in that office.  The cycle would start when the telegraph broke the silent droning of flies with a staccato “train order” for the next train, typically instructing the freight to move onto a siding somewhere up the tracks between Ipswich and Mobridge to clear the main line for a passenger train, which in those glory days had priority over freights. After decoding the message and responding to my insistent questions about what was going on, Elliott would type the train order in triplicate on different colored sheets separated by carbon paper, one for the engineer and fireman, one for the forward brakeman who usually rode on the locomotive’s tender, and one for the conductor in the caboose.

To hand up the messages without requiring the laboring train to stop, Elliott tied each message to a loop of string, which he fitted into the forked end of a long stick, the message on the taut segment spanning between the ends of the fork.  Elliott would make up three of these rigs, and have them ready for the train. My self-appointed job was to make sure Elliott knew when the train was approaching as I would see it when only a wisp of smoke was visible far down the tracks, maybe as far as Mina, about 15 miles away toward Aberdeen. The gentle undulation of the great plain limited the perspective of the train to about 5 miles, down to the grain elevator at the crossroads then called Craven, if memory serves. Was that smoke? Yes! It was coming. Slowly the image would form of a locomotive pulling hard, a dark halo around the headlight, crowned with an impressive tree of smoke and steam.


A station master handing up a train order to the passing engineer

Moving 40 or so miles per hour, it grew slowly. My blood would start racing at this point, because with Elliott as cover, I dared to leave the safety of the office and stand on the narrow platform, something I would never do alone. The door to the office opened onto the platform, and if I happened to arrive for my tour of duty just as a train was coming, I would have to decide whether to dash for the door or wait: I would never dare be caught alone on the platform when the locomotive went by.

Standing perhaps 5 feet from the track, I watched the locomotive’s front end grow. It seemed to be coming straight at us, but at some point the perspective changed to a great stretching in height and then I would be next to the wild machinery flying around next to the wheels, holding my ears against the roar of the exhaust and the hiss of steam blasting from the pistons.  Elliott skillfully held up two of the poles so the engineer and forward brakeman could slip their arms through the loops as the locomotive roared past, followed by the orderly raging and squealing of the cars, all scarily close and fast.  I would watch and count the cars, until the caboose came by, the conductor grabbed his orders while hanging off the platform, and the clamor gradually disappeared into the hot summer’s silence.

My mother and I made the trip back to Omaha on a train from Aberdeen to Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the river from Omaha. It arrived in late afternoon behind a little locomotive. I noticed its wheels: 2 in front, 8 in the middle and none at the rear. I am not sure what railroad it was, not the Milwaukee, probably the Chicago and Northwestern. We expected a passenger train, but instead there were 20 or 30 freight cars in front of the last car, an ancient wooden coach with wicker seats, operable windows and hanging gas lights. It was a long night, as we were on what I later learned was a “way freight,” one that picked up and delivered freight to the industrial sidings along the route, with the passenger car an incidental add-on. All through the stormy night we periodically would stop, back, jolt, wait, jolt again, maybe twice over, and move on. It was a long trip.

California and the SP

At that age, the locomotive was an awesome presence, unitary and unexamined. I began to register differences on moving west with my mother, leaving Colorado after a summer at a camp in Estes Park (to and from which we traveled on the still-operating narrow-gauge Denver and Rio Grande Western). We boarded in Denver on an evening of August, 1945, when every train was completely jammed with U.S. soldiers being sent west from Europe for discharge. I think I counted almost 30 coaches, but there was not a seat to be had. Mother and I found a perch opposite a men’s room on a tiny shelf about a foot deep.  Diabolically fitted dead center in the wall behind where one would have liked to lean was a quarter-sphere bronze ash tray about 5″ in diameter, so we could neither lie nor sit but merely perch. And so we did, all night, bathed in smoke, watching soldiers get sick in the bathroom, trying to nap. Finally dawn came, and a pair of compassionate soldiers offered us their seats, a blessed thing. An attendant came down the aisle with a huge vat of coffee, which (when she discovered it had both cream AND sugar in it) my mother refused to drink. But I had some, my first coffee, never yet equaled.

Now I could watch out the window as the train climbed into the Sierras after negotiating the Rockies and the salt flats during the night.  And I saw something profoundly wonderful and odd — the two huge locomotives were running backward, each towing its tender behind what should have been its nose. I watched this marvelous pair dive into large tunnels made of wood, which I correctly guessed were to keep snow off the tracks.  But I was not smart enough at age 10 to understand why the locomotives were running backward. This was my first taste of the Southern Pacific Railroad, which as I grew older, became a synonym for beauty, the subject of my dreams and the absorber of my spare time. I never bothered to delve into its sordid history, except that I knew the Gadsden purchase was made solely to accommodate the route of the SP.


The only surviving cab-forward locomotive

The SP ran steamers well after I started college in 1953, but by the time I graduated in 1959, they were few, and by the early 60’s all were gone, although not from the many dreams in which I discover old steamers still in use. I still have such dreams.  My 11th and 12th grades were spent in Alhambra, now part of the vast Asian settlement in the San Gabriel Valley, before that populated with down-and-out Chicanos, but in the 1950’s still relatively prosperous. It was a walkable working-class town – C. F. Braun had a factory there – but was close enough to the beauties of South Pasadena to still hold onto some professionals. All this I surmise in retrospect — for me, the school was filled with kids who liked sports and cars and rock and roll, with only a few who shared my bookish orientation and love of “serious” music and jazz.

In those days crafts and hobbies were popular, as we had no TV, and the school had an HO gauge model railroad club. I was a member and helped with the large layout at school, while building my own layout in the tiny cellar of our little California bungalow. My interest in model trains was nurtured by the real thing, for the SP’s east-west main line from LA to New Orleans ran through the middle of town. To the east was San Gorgonio Pass, the steep grades of which required two locomotives to pull the long passenger trains, and for the freight trains, several more spliced into the middle or tacked onto the rear (today you just add diesel units as needed). I got to know and love the SP’s steam locomotives.

A little-used city street paralleled the main line for several blocks. I would borrow the family’s 1948 Plymouth, drive to the station and wait for the evening second-class passenger train to New Orleans. I would park next to the hissing locomotive – on good nights one of the big cab-forward articulateds, like the ones I first saw pulling our train up the Sierras. Its bell began tolling, its throaty whistle erupted, and the great machine would hiss and belch a great roar, then another, often spinning its driving wheels struggling to get the long train moving. I would stay alongside the locomotive, gazing at the accelerating dance of machinery with an occasional glance at the road, pausing at stop signs, then catching up again, until it finally outran me a few blocks from the station. The chase was hugely satisfying.

The Missing Giants

The sailing vessel is the steam locomotive’s chief rival in my pantheon of beautiful traveling machines, one that has the great advantage of still being available for close examination. Vessels under sail have an entirely different character from steam locomotives, albeit one with equal merit. Instead of the noisy clanking and swinging, the sailing vessel at full power is as taut as a bowstring, expressing an exquisite balance between tension and minimal structure to contain it. It replaces the compressive vigor of the locomotive with tension, vividly expressed in the taut sail and supporting lines, not one of which could be dispensed with.

Steam engines were inefficient, hard on the trackage, difficult and dangerous to operate and maintain, and an environmental disaster. If WWII had not intervened, they would have been retired years earlier. Steam locomotives were built and owned by the railroad, while diesels are leased, liberating the company from a serious capital investment and allowing periodic upgrades. I would be the last to argue that we should return to the age of steam.

But I do miss them, and cherish my long love affair with these awesome machines. Even now I have vivid dreams in which I discover steam locmotives still in use. I hope you will take any opportunity to experience one of those that remain as tourist attractions.