Sunday, March 14, 2010

God thinks he's a mathematician

There's an old joke that ecologists think they're biologists, biologists think they're organic chemists, organic chemists think they're physicists, physicists think they're God, and God thinks he's a mathematician.

I may be heading into Gosporn territory here, but that's always been my attitude to theology. At the end of the day, the only decent field of metaphysics is mathematics.

Here's a great yarn from one of my college physics textbooks:

The temperature of Heaven can be rather accurately computed. Our authority is Isaiah 30:26, "Moreover, the light of the Moon shall be as the light of the Sun and the light of the Sun shall be sevenfold, as the light of seven days." Thus Heaven receives from the Moon as much radiation as we do from the Sun, and in addition 7*7 (49) times as much as the Earth does from the Sun, or 50 times in all. The light we receive from the Moon is one 1/10,000 of the light we receive from the Sun, so we can ignore that.... The radiation falling on Heaven will heat it to the point where the heat lost by radiation is just equal to the heat received by radiation, i.e., Heaven loses 50 times as much heat as the Earth by radiation. Using the Stefan-Boltzmann law for radiation, (H/E) temperature of the earth (-300K), gives H as 798K (525C). The exact temperature of Hell cannot be computed.... [However] Revelations 21:8 says "But the fearful, and unbelieving...shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone." A lake of molten brimstone means that its temperature must be at or below the boiling point, 444.6C. We have, then, that Heaven, at 525C is hotter than Hell at 445C. ~From Applied Optics

Happy Pi Day!

"Mathematics is just the sex urge sublimated."
- M.C. Reed

"If people find mathematics complicated, it is only because they do not understand how complicated the real world is."
- John von Neumann

You know, there was a time as a college undergraduate that I could actually rattle off Pi to the 50th digit by memory, and compared to some other people I knew in the Mathematics program, I was a downright underachiever. Mathematics is a fundamentally humbling field because there are occasions where you feel that your pencil is smarter than you are.

Nonetheless, Pi is a miraculous number, an elegant mathematical constant that expresses the ratio of a circumference of a circle to its diameter. Like the properties of water (see below!) pi is one of those wonderful things that show a comprehensible, symmetrical universe. It's great to dedicate a day to celebrating it.

Bad Chemistry: Hoisted by their own petards!

The chemistry of water is one of the most miraculous things in the universe. It's an example of how interesting and wondrous the world becomes the more you study science. Something that is everywhere that is taken for granted in fact has unique properties. This is why Jesuits insist on their members study something other than theology...the best way to understand anything divine is by seeing a pattern here on earth.

Water actually expands when solid, something that makes life on earth possible. The reason for this is actually visible at the molecular level. The molecules of H20 form into a tetrahedral arrangement when it crystalizes and solidifies (which for those of us that are gamers, looks like a 4-sided die, one of the Five Platonic Solids), and there's no way to do this without making the hydrogens of one atom attract the oxygen charge of a neighbor, so what happens is that there's no way to really tightly squeeze water molecules together when it crystalizes, and voila! It actually expands.

This tiny detail of the molecules of water is something that is really important on a much grander scale. If glaciers didn't float, they'd sink to the bottom, and very soon the entire ocean would be frozen over. It's a polar molecule, with a positive charge on the hydrogens and negative charge on the oxygen. Because of the charge, water can't move things with covalent bonds, so it means that we don't dissolve in our own cell fluids.

Because water has a high specificity of heat, it can take in more heat than any other substance (except ammonia, intriguingly) and is used to warm up regions near currents, like Norway. Because of the heat storage ability, the Mediterranean is the lush and wonderful part of the world that it is today.

Water is also a universal solvent, and can dissolve nearly anything - which is why it's great for cleaning, as it dissolves things into itself. Many people know that the is actually dissolved gold in seawater.

Here's a great website that details some of the more intriguing water properties.

Water is an incredible substance, and may be the one thing I'd ever point towards to show a genius pattern or designer to the universe.

There is only one occasion where I would ever participate in the political process, and that is to support education, especially science education.

This blog post by Thomas Sowell talks about how some friend of his got some college students to sign off in a protest against "dihydromonoxide."

A woman with a petition went among the crowds attending a state fair, asking people to sign her petition demanding the banning of dihydroxymonoxide. She said it was in our lakes and streams, and now it was in our sweat and urine and tears.

She collected hundreds of signatures to ban dihydroxymonoxide — a fancy chemical name for water. A couple of comedians were behind this ploy. But there is nothing funny about its implications. It is one of the grim and dangerous signs of our times.

There certainly is a valid lesson here about how people instinctively support causes without looking deeply at what's going on.


Dihydroxymonoxide would be two merged hydroxyls (namely, an oxygen and hydrogen atom bonded covalently) that are somehow connected to a single oxygen atom. Dihydroxymonoxide doesn't exist and couldn't exist!

The chemical term for water is dihydrogen monoxide.

By the way, the joke would have been a lot more nerdy and obscure if they used the IUPAC (international union of pure and applied chemistry) nomenclature for water, oxidane.

The best part of all this is that the columnist uses an obvious scientific illiteracy - dihydroxymonoxide - to try to scare us into thinking that education at the university level is "bad" and teaches us to be suckers.

The only thing that really bugs me is to slam learning, science and education. It's great to see supposed pranksters slamming education get hoisted by their own petards.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

What's romantic?

Anyone that knows me, knows that I'd consider something like this one of the most romantic things ever.

The geochemistry of the "Blood Falls"

By the way, a little note from the last column: a reader that is studying economics brought to my attention that matrix modelling is used in the discipline of economics. Nice!

I have to admit, it's a striking image: a glacier that bleeds. It's like something out of an Elric novel, or Ozzy Ozbourne's subconscious. Not only does it make for surreal and sensationalist photographs, but it might tell us a little something about the history of life on earth and possibly where we're headed.

The chemistry behind the "Blood Falls" is astonishing, since it has been a fjord lake trapped inside a small glacier. The water of the antarctic fjord was sealed off by glacier ice over 5 million years ago, before humans stood erect. This caused the water to acquire unique chemical properties that are downright non-earthly.

We take it for granted that water flows around and has contact with the air. When it doesn't, water undergoes a chemical change as a result of the bacteria living inside of it, which chew up the dissolved oxygen. As the environment is closed off, eventually the bacteria burn through the oxygen. Now, oxygen is important in organic chemistry because of its property as an electron acceptor. Deprived of oxygen to bond with, bacteria switch to the second best electron acceptor, which in water is typically nitrogen. Nitrogen is burned through relatively fast, and then they switch to sulfates, creating sulfides...which explains the bad "rotten" smell of stagnant water (and you've gotta love any chemical whose most distinctive characteristic is smelling bad). Sulfur is actually in the same column of the periodic table with oxygen and has similar electron-accepting properties, after all.

(By the way, a note for fans of organic chemistry: you might have heard the term thioether refer to sulfides and so there's a great instinct to think both are the same thing. Sulfides and thioethers are similar but not the same thing. Sulfide is a term to describe pretty much anything that's sulfur with two atoms of carbon including those created by nonliving processes, whereas thioether specifically refers to sulfides created by organic processes.)

Now, sulfates are very reactive with iron. In fact, they're responsible for the process of corrosion. So if you throw some sulfides together with iron, and it catalyzes it, speeding it up until it becomes bright red rust. This gives the red falls it's color. But in the trapped bacteria of the red falls, the iron and the sulfates are actually used as a part of the reaction cycle. This is something that has never been seen before in any living thing on earth.
Let me explain that: these are single-celled organisms that produce their own food...with iron, and without sunlight or much oxygen.

How is this important to understanding the history of life?

Well, there was a period of time around 850-650 million years ago, called the Cryogenian, when the entire planet earth was frozen. There were glaciers in the tropics and the earth's ocean was all ice. If you stop and think about it, that would make the earth a really dead world. There's a lot of back and forth between scientists as to whether the entire earth really could have been frozen...because how could life survive something that shocking for millions of years? Something like this, where a totally different biochemistry for food-producing bacteria is discovered, can change the entire history of life.

Likewise, something like this can also tell us about periods of time that earth's oceans have been deprived of oxygen, called anoxic events. When ocean currents don't circulate, oxygen isn't sent into the water. If oxygen isn't sent into the water, sulfur's used instead, and this produces poisonous hydrogen sulfide. Water itself becomes very lethal to living things - creating "dead zones," and would have turned a deep green hue from the bacterial blooms, not to mention smelling like rotten eggs. These accompany a heating of the earth's atmosphere from events like super-global warming. This in fact might have been part of the cause of the largest mass-extinction in earth's history, between the Permian and Triassic.

This is one of the most exciting areas in the history of life, because it's cutting edge. The role of anoxic events in the hot global temperature that we associate with the age of the Dinosaurs isn't new, but in fact, the idea that anoxic events may have been the agents of mass extinctions are only as old as this decade.

All of this may sound scary and familiar, because it is happening right now. Oceanic deoxygenifaction - or oceanic suffocation, to use the scarier and sexier term - is one of the more anxiety-inducing effects of global warming, huge areas of deoxygenofied water where there's no life.

I usually have some kind of pro-intellectual moral attached to these discussions on cutting edge science, and here's the one for today: there is no such thing as useless scientific research. I am outraged by politicians that decry genetic research, for instance, as a giant waste of time: Sarah Palin was ticked off by the study of fruit flies, despite the fact that the guys studying fruit flies used the information to understand and prevent human birth defects, something that won them the Nobel Prize!

Studying something like this weird freak event may sound like a waste of time because it's a one of a kind ecosystem. But it has so much to tell us about the history of life, possible future changes in the earth with real consequences for human beings, and perhaps even a way for life to work on other planets. Sorry, Sarah, but the only real waste of resources is on ignorance.