Risk Management

(or the lack thereof)

My father told me that one critical difference between humans and animals is that humans make tools.  I can’t remember when he told me that. I don’t remember the context. It was wrong then and had been wrong for countless millennia when he shared that tidbit. He was an intelligent, well-educated guy. Animal behavior was not in his wheelhouse.

Animals use found tools. Rocks, twigs, branches, sponges, bolas, bits of tile, all have been seen in use by various creatures.  Even exchange tokens have been used by apes under observation. Humans are the only creatures who learned to change tools to improve task achievement.

Anthropologists have found various stone tools in digs around the world. The earliest finds so far are from east Africa in areas dated to 2.5 million years ago. It is easy to see how stones became tools; pick one up, smash something, put it down. The modifications for size, shape, sharpness, use in spears or arrows, came from a human mind holding a rock, thinking about a problem. And the passage of time. The use of bones as awls, needles, harpoon points and fish hooks came later, around 100,000 years ago.

Tools through the early ages of humankind
Tools from the stone age

Let’s leap forward a bit to the invention of a flywheel to help manage thread and fabric making occurred around 8,000 B.C.E. It might have taken another 4,500 years for the potter’s wheel, certainly a related object, to make it into the world in 3,500 B.C.E. as a potter’s wheel. It took another 300 years before someone is thought to use them for a chariot. Mining and farming tools popped in somewhere between the flywheel and the chariot.

Another leap and in 350 B.C.E., we had figured out how to make mechanical gears, then rotary power, millstones, water mills, cement, and roads (200 B.C.E.) in relatively short order. This era also saw aqueducts built to improve agriculture and civic water supplies. It is interesting that all of these innovations occurred so rapidly after a long time gap.

Roman aqueduct near Zaghouan, Carthage, built between 200 and 100 B.C.E.

In the last century B.C.E. arches, bridges, vaults, and domes were created, along with a tool (the dioptra) for surveying land.  Strangely, it was the 7th C.E. before the next leap occurred. Windmills started popping up to mill grain. Canals started using locks to raise and lower boats used for transporting resources and people. The first tower clock was built in China at about the same time Europe was mounting an army to invade the Middle East (late 11th C.). It took another couple of centuries before Europe worked clockworks and put up its first public clocks. This was also about the time that cloth mills became a disruptive technology.

By the mid-15th C., the Gutenberg press had been invented and used to create an innovation in education, previously the realm of the rich and the cloistered. Inexpensive mass printing allowed books to be owned by anyone with some funds and an interest. Domestic clocks made it into homes in the 15th C. This was a liberating technology at the time, making it possible to schedule tasks in a day without relying on a public clock (they weren’t everywhere) or the sun’s circuit.

If you have a clock, you can measure the amount of time it takes to achieve certain outcomes. How long does it take to make a bolt of fabric? How many bolts can be made in 24 hours? The human mind is given a denominator – time – writ large and can ensure that as many tasks as possible are done in unit time (or tasks/time).

The steam pump, boiler, cylinder, and piston were all invented in the first years of the 18th C. Thirty years later, the flying shuttle, used in fabric looms, is invented and eliminates manually casting the shuttle back and forth; a machine does that and a single operator is all that’s needed for each flying shuttle apparatus. Thirty more years and James Watt invents the steam engine, an innovation that speeds the plow, makes trains, steamships, and automobiles possible, and provides a means of generating energy without wind, water, or manual labor.

Around the same time (1764-1779 , Hargreaves, Arkwright, and Crompton invented new ways of making and using thread that increased cotton mill output by huge amounts – and also put more pressure on “the colonies” (India and the American colonies) to raise more cotton through slave labor. The cotton gin came on the scene in 1793, again increasing the pace at which cotton needed to be harvested. By 1810, forty times as much cotton was produced as in 1793. More plantations are built and more slaves are kidnapped from Africa and sold in the new nation of the United States.

Sweeper and Doffer in a Cotton Mill

It’s time for another leap, this time to the early years of the 19th century. Britain was the initial seat of the industrial revolution and this was fed by a set of natural and political circumstances that made it inevitable given the technologies created in the 18th C. Britain had plentiful water, iron, and coal resources. The water was directed into canals, into a force to drive millwork, and into half the raw material to create steam.  The political system had undergone significant changes; the royal powers had been reduced at the end of the 17th C. and inventions that drove increasing prosperity created a middle class of people who would have had no stature in a monarchy but rose due to their contributions to the economy. The unification of Britain and Scotland also created a tariff-free zone, removing a cost for resources.

Manchester and Liverpool, Machester’s closest port, became huge textile cities. Birmingham, with coal, iron, and wood resources in abundance, became Britain’s forge, creating the metal gears, boilers, engines, and tools of all descriptions. A railway line is completed in 1838 between London and Birmingham; what the north forges and mills, London can sell through its ever-increasing markets.

Button Makers in Birmingham
Hundreds of workers punching buttons out of sheet metal in a Birmingham factory

But the quaint countryside that once was is turning into something new and not altogether pleasant. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in his Journeys to England and Ireland (1835), described Birmingham as “an immense workshop, a huge forge,” where one sees only “busy people and faces brown with smoke” and hears “nothing but the sound of hammers and the whistle of steam escaping from boilers.” He wrote the following about his visit to Manchester during the same trip:

“An undulating plain, or rather a collection of little hills… On this watery land, which nature and art have contributed to keep damp, are scattered palaces and hovels. . . . Thirty or forty factories rise on the tops of the hills I have just described. Their six stories tower up; their huge enclosures give notice from afar of the centralisation of industry. The wretched dwellings of the poor are scattered haphazard around them. Round them stretches land uncultivated but without the charm of rustic nature, and still without the amenities of a town. The soil has been taken away, scratched and torn up in a thousand places, but it is not yet covered with the habitations of men. The land is given over to industry’s use. . . .Heaps of dung, rubble from buildings, putrid, stagnant pools are found here and there among the houses and over the bumby, pitted surfaces of the public places. . . . “

Alexis de Tocqueville

With prosperity came squalor and mass violation of the land. With innovation came a new kind of feudal state in which people with great ideas gained status and people with a pair of hands (one would do), two legs and a back (weak or strong), child, senior, woman or man, became the peasants to the industrial “lords” who sped up production, funded mines, or savaged the countryside.

Along with these engines of commerce came billowing smoke from any coal that could be found. A type called “sea-coal” that burnt quickly and produced huge amounts of black smoke, full of sulfur and nitrogen oxides, not to mention carbon particles and the enormously cancerous compounds included in the amorphous group known as combustion or pyrolysis products, darkened the day and mixed with Britain’s cool, wet atmosphere to produce unknown levels of smog.

Collecting sea coal from the beach at Hartlepool in 1888. It is still carried out on a small scale today. (Hartlepool History Then and Now)

Pea-souper” fogs—smog really—had been reported back to the 12th C. due to the prevalence of “sea-coal” available to those who gathered this from shorelines where it was found on the surface. Add this in with the huge coal reserves and the metastasizing number of steam machines and iron forges and a pall hangs over the land, a constant night in which visibility is as little as one foot away.

Leicester, Great Britain “at work”

By 1905, pea-soupers in London had gotten so bad that the public clamored for respite and the politicians started to respond. These pea-soupers would continue through the 20th C. and into the present but were diminished by increasing use of cleaner energy methods and enforcement of scrubber technologies on smokestacks.

Smog was not the property of London alone. Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, much of industrialized Europe and the world created this same gloomy mess in their atmospheres. The ballistic increase in coal use in contemporary China, escaping post-WWII from its own feudal system, has created an environmental catastrophe in its major cities. Slowly, countries that could afford to spend on pollution control systems did so. In the ’60s and ’70s, acid rain, a by-product of sulfur oxides from coal plants mixing with water in the atmosphere, was acidifying lakes and streams and killing large swaths of forest across the U.S. Particle and acid scrubbers added to industrial systems reduced this dramatically but only because of environmental activism and the empowerment of a new agency President Nixon signed into being – the Environmental Protection Agency. Industry profits took a short-term hit but found their way forward. People living in smog-infested areas saw marked improvements in quality of life indicators.

The push-and-pull between innovation and human health has been a signature process from the beginning of the industrial revolution. For instance, the Cuyahoga River running through Cleveland, Ohio in Lake Erie, caught fire 13 times between 1868. It took the populace and politicians until the ’70s to correct this travesty and led to the establishment of the Clean Water Act, along with other environmental regulations and agencies.

This kind of thing went on around the U.S. The Love Canal neighborhood in Niagra Falls, New York became so polluted by Hooker Chemical that the neighborhood with its school and businesses became so poisonous that 900 families were evacuated, making a ghost town imbued with organic solvents, pesticides, and lethal carcinogens. The directly correlated health effects resulted in respiratory, liver, blood, and urinary tract diseases, and ultimately leukemia.

(Watch all episodes of this History Channel video available on YouTube)

In 1989, the impaired pilot of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran onto Bligh Reef, resulting in 11 million gallons (77.6 million pounds) of oil coating at least 1,300 miles of shoreline around Prince William Sound.

Attribution: http://www.evostc.state.ak.us/index.cfm?FA=facts.map

From the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council report:

How many animals died outright from the oil spill?
No one knows. The carcasses of more than 35,000 birds and 1,000 sea otters were found after the spill, but since most carcasses sink, this is considered to be a small fraction of the actual death toll. The best estimates are: 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs.

Astonishingly, this oil spill is no longer in the top 50 global oil spills, an enormous interactive list of which can be found on Wikipedia or at chartsbin. Here is an interactive map compiled by chartsbin that shows the impact globally (please visit – it is a great data visualization):

On the night of December 2, 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India released at least 30 tons (60,000 pounds) of lethal methyl isocyanate, as well as other toxic gases (there are disturbing photos in this article but it is worth a look). the release was determined to be due to inadequate maintenance and repair of valves connecting various reaction vessels in the plant and inadequate training of on-duty personnel. More than 600,000 citizens were exposed to this gas; the Indian government now estimates that at least 15,000 people died, virtually all of them the poor people who lived around the plant as no one with money would live close to such a plant. There has been no long-term epidemiological research to determine how many miscarriages, birth defects, and other health issues have resulted from this disaster. To this date, the site has not been cleaned up by Dow Chemical, which purchased Union Carbide. Thousands of tons of hazardous waste remain buried at and near the site and toxins are still detectable in area water and ground samples. A settlement of $470 million was paid in 1991 against a claim by the Indian government of $3.3 billion in damages. Various litigation efforts continued after the settlement.

An hour-long National Geographic India documentary (©2014 National Geographic)

Add to these the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear plant disasters, the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, and countless other man-made disasters, large, medium, and small, and you should arrive at an idea that, whatever “we” are doing to prevent these events, “we are not doing anywhere near enough.

A fascinating aspect of this entire problem is based entirely on humankind’s ability to create and innovate tools and technologies. Over the millennia, we have progressed from shaping rocks and bones for simple tasks to developing ever-smaller semiconductors that provide a stunning range of services to much of the world’s population through cell phones and other portable technologies that get less expensive to purchase every day. During this process of innovation, we have also created a wide array of sciences and skill sets that help us understand our world. From the roots of physics, biology, and chemistry, we have developed the environmental sciences field. From economics and engineering, as well as the sciences listed above, we have developed the discipline of risk management. This hybrid area of practice makes it possible to identify, assess, and prioritize risks to communities, businesses, governments, and the planet as a whole. The risks are associated with costs and benefits of various activities and are given with a range of outcomes, from the lowest cost that can be expected to greatest cost to be expected from executing a business plan, an international strategy, or development (and eventual exhaustion) of a resource.

We have developed this marvelous intellectual ability to determine what costs might be and what the probability of various outcomes might be… and then we almost always underfund the effort that will contain terrible outcomes, which quite often occur. Burning sea-coal and other fossil fuels were eventually going to cause overwhelming sulfur, chlorine, and nitrogen acids, heavy metal (e.g. lead, cadmium), combustion product, and particulate pollution. When did the U.S. get around to regulating this? The 1970s.

After the development of nuclear power, an intellectually fascinating effort well-described in Richard Rhodes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning epic The Making of the Atomic Bomb, countries around the world developed nuclear energy as a means of generating electricity. To date, the creation of atomic weapons and nuclear power plants has created at least 75,000 TONS (150,000,000 pounds) of high-level radioactive waste – that’s just the high-level stuff! Here’s a map of where some of the nuclear waste is stored – at nuclear power plants – around the U.S. Of the seventy-five sites listed, nine are either decommissioned or in some stage of decommissioning, yet the waste is still there on-site. Why? Because over 70 years after WWII and the conjuring of nuclear power, this country has not come together and agreed on a single consolidated long-term nuclear waste storage site. The principle of “not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY)” rules over rational, concerted behavior in the general good. We created a risk for which we had no plan and we still have no plan. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years, meaning that in 24,000 years the amount of 239Pu presently in storage in the U.S. will drop to only 6.35 tons (12,700 pounds) as there are currently 12.7 tons in various storage systems. In 24,000 years after that, only 6,350 pounds will remain dangerous. Current plans for “long-term” storage take into account a safe storage period of 10,000 years. How is this prudent risk management?

We have a planet. We have created innumerable ways to interact with it, to study it and to change it. We have developed ways to understand the huge risks we pose its well-being so that we can live modern and comfortable lives – or at least so of us can live comfortably.

After developing these ways of understanding our planet, we ignore them as often as we pay attention to what we have learned. Let’s not jeopardize the splendor of our planet and an amazing human legacy by continuing to be stupid while being smart.

Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Sites
Commercial spent nuclear fuel storage sites


Book “Animal Tool Behavior:” http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10565301-animal-tool-behavior

Animal tools: http://www.npr.org/2011/12/23/143833929/myth-busting-the-truth-about-animals-and-tools

Stone tools: http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/stone-tools/early-stone-age-tools

Fish hooks: http://www.nature.com/news/archaeologists-land-world-s-oldest-fish-hook-1.9461

Wheel: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/a-salute-to-the-wheel-31805121/?no-ist

History of Technology: http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ab11

Zaghouan aqueduct, Carthage: http://www.roman-empire.net/articles/article-025.html

Industrial Revolution: http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?groupid=1236&HistoryID=aa37&gtrack=pthc#ixzz4I0wyt2V3

A. de Tocqueville Journeys to Ireland, England (1835) http://www.dhr.history.vt.edu/modules/eu/mod01_nature/evidence_detail_05.html

Feudal system: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feudalism

Pea soup fog: https://www.epa.gov/aboutepa/londons-historic-pea-soupers

Cuyahoga River fires: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuyahoga_River

Love Canal: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_Canal

Exxon Valdez: http://www.evostc.state.ak.us/?FA=facts.QA

Bhopal disaster article: http://www.cseindia.org/userfiles/THE%20BHOPAL%20DISASTER.pdf

Featured Image: http://predicthistunpredictpast.blogspot.com/2013_08_25_archive.html


The Big Day

He was in the back yard again. He had seen everything that there was to see.

He was in the back yard again. He had seen everything that there was to see. Again. He had seen where the rectangle of lawn faded into the dirt beneath the hedges on all sides. He had sat at the picnic table that used to have a brownish-red color but now showed an unnatural gray where hands and shoes and pants and dresses had worn away the tint, once new and no longer so. He had walked back and forth between the galvanized gray uprights of the laundry line, touching one, then turning, walking, and touching the other, to and fro, here and there, over and over. He had visited the place where the cat used to scoot through the hedges to bother other cats in the neighborhood. Or perhaps just visit. But there were often yowls of menace during the disappearances and those didn’t sound friends. Maybe those were greetings in cat language. What did he know…. And anyway that cat was buried near its escape path under a little patch of grass that was a bit irregular from the uneven mat that covered the rest of the yard. A little yellower maybe. A little infested with the cat and the bugs down there munching away inside the shoebox that had served as a casket. The screen door and the wooden door beyond it was where it always was and it was no more interesting than the rest of this sameness.

So he took a walk. Well, first he crawled. Through the portal worn clear by the cat’s back and still there was a clump of hair or two clutched by some twigs like a memorial flag fluttering. He stood up and walked through that yard and out to the street, then down the street past the fire plug. The small yapping dog came to the edge of its invisible fence and bared its teeth and gums to show how fierce it was and what would happen if it could just break through the invisible manacles reminding its neck to be a good dog and go no further. He raised his hands and pawed the air just to show the dog how scared he really was. And he smiled and walked a bit further to the four-way stop that was stopping no one at that moment, including him. So he crossed the street and walked down further, going straight to the playground he was visiting, passing under big oaks, branches full of lobed leaves, a faint breeze moving them and incanting a slippery song more to themselves than to him or anyone who might listen. Passing the brick veneer homes with white porches and gables on the steeply sloped roofs. Passing another four-way stop with no one there except him and some birds chattering and singing songs that showed off how brilliantly they knew their music, sometimes interrupted by the songs that interrupted them, sometimes stopping out of annoyance and other times from pure appreciation for what the other birds had sung. And the walk went on because the playground was just ahead and he knew he could walk it if he just kept going as he was headed and it would be just on his right with its chain-link fence and sandy lot, its jungle gym and swing set and teeter-totter and monkey bars, its sandbox that everyone knew not to enter as everyone had seen the naughty dogs go in it and squat, shivering for an agonized and frozen moment, then kick the sand around as if that was a job well done. It was just going to be here ahead, with its worn green benches and metal supports, its collection of threads ripped from clothing long since gone to Goodwill or the trash man’s truck.

And while he walked the sun shone down on his little head, glimpsing him through the trees and keeping its one eye peeled in his direction, knowing where he went and reminding him that he was not alone but had a giant yellow friend who was there half of every day before his other friend appeared, although both disappeared whenever they  wanted to it seemed and came back when they were good and ready and not before. And he felt a little hot and a little thirsty but it was just going to be up here where he rode his trike alongside his mom’s slow step, pedaling slower than he could walk so he could keep her company as she walked her little dog who knew not to yelp and growl and show its teeth. But his trike was gone and his feet moved faster than it ever had, so he didn’t need it and the playground was going to be up ahead where the other kids were with their moms or dads or both or with their friends or sitters or both and sometimes with their pets, which might be turtles or lizards or snakes or rabbits or mice but only when those pets had learned to behave just like their keepers wanted them to. Well, not the turtles as they always moved so slow even when they took their flying turtle leaps through the sand and tried to get away it was like a fish swimming through molasses and their keeper would scoop them up and their little turtle heads would disappear or they would stretch their necks out and paddle their paws as if that would set them free. But it didn’t and their keepers would put them back in their boxes labeled with crayon that said, “Tommy the Turtle” or “Terry the Tortoise” or some other name made up of “T” names.

But then he was at a stream, at the bank that led down to the stream and it was cool there, with a rock half-buried in the damp ground on the bank, a rock with a few patches of bright green moss and more patches of lichen in hues of green and gray and even a ghostly blue, a nice rock to sit on in the suddenly cool air out of sight of the sun and in the arms of a breeze that passed along the tunnel of trees arching over the stream, passing in the same direction as the water that ran clear atop its rocks and the darker pools, swirling where a smooth stone broke its flow, dipping where a wall of stones made a small wet dam that didn’t fool the water into stopping but gave it a nice graceful fall into its fellow waters that had just passed that way. So he watched this going on and saw some tiny fish swim up from pools, then disappear, then swim up and disappear again. He watched a snail, then two creep up one side of a wet rock green with algae, slowly making its way to who knew where but moving, sliding forward as slow as time, leaving their sticky trails behind to glisten in the gentle light that flickered through the leaves and dusted the stream and rocks and bank and he himself with shadows and light, casting beams through the mists the stream stirred into the air, showing the spheres of mist as crystalline and twirling, then vanishing them into darkness as another set of mists were chosen by the sun.

And this is how the day became night and the air became cooler and he still could see the stream and rocks and bank, but it was too cool for him and he wondered whether it was time to go and find the playground where he meant to be anyway.

But then a hand touched him on the shoulder and a voice he didn’t know said “come on, Fred. We’ve been looking for you and it’s supper time. Your family is worried and wondered where you went.”

So Freddie rose slowly, slightly damp from the stream, cool from the early night breeze, happy from watching his friends play on the rocks and the sun pass slowly from the sky and the night come before the moon showed. And the man put a blanket around his stooped, bony shoulders and mottled, flaccid arms and helped him to the van that waited just beyond his day place, guiding him, slowly, into the van, where some other people in orange vests and a clean, white bed waited for him to step up and over to them.

It had been a big day and now it was time for a nap.



Gutta Serena: Man in Repose

The man with cold sockets and empty eyes is crouched, his backbone snapping terse remarks…

The man with cold sockets and empty eyes
is crouched, his backbone snapping terse remarks
in mocking praise of his hard-bought old age.
The empty man with wrinkled lips and fixed
eyes staring through the limpid rain-washed glass,
is clutched by molded plastic from below,
nestling blackened fingernails amongst
his hound’s forgotten hairs and grimy bones.
His room is not a room but brutal thoughts
from distant places drawn to cuddle him
until his heart stops stirring memory.
He waits and watches past persistencies…

“I see past scenes congealed in liquid time:
in our old home, my father rules the world
and lets glimpses of my past appear and
freeze me; it is as always—hate between
the two of us—he is lord over what
is real, criticizing my wish to be
more than a clutter of old flickerings—
his stark and sinister repose at home,
voiceless thoughts in water-streaming walls,
a nest-like kapok couch, and sand-drip lamps.”

“The somber grasp of mildewed cloth is still
within my mind, replete with lace. Its clutch
is cold, dusty with old suns, wet with light
refracted through the rains. Translucent skins
stretched on wooden frames for eyes; each night is
searched for hopeful escape from crazing fear
and constant change. My patron’s muttering maw,
lips—spitting words and smoke through a cigar,
grinning, pointed, rotten teeth—contort to
tell stories I never wanted known …”

“‘Your birth occurred three times, my son, and each
poor child demanded change. Your first, a pig
with visage furred in black, we strung from ear
to ear and waited for your matter to
go dull. The next, a snake, was colored black
with spiraled carmine hoops; we took the skin
and burnt it, waiting for your third.
You were the third and most unfortunate, damned
to death in life. No curiosities
left me, I lost all interest in your being.'”

“‘Your simple mother went, with gauze and glass,
to catch, she said, some scrod in the close vale
that lies beyond the vine-enshrouded pass—
those dogs like spiders—blasted chunks of trees.
Before she passed, so swollen, sliced, and blanched,
she told me all she saw in that miasmal
place. Gray waters hovered, clotted, in that
bleak, wasted cut. Silverfish flew through
the mists and used their scythe-like fins to shred
and poison. She shivered and bled in my arms.'”

“‘When you were ten we sat upon the porch
of this slump-shouldered shack for weeks on end.
The fields of wheat, once golden star-touched wands,
each seeded head perfection in itself,
then turned to black spore fungus as we watched
it spread its pox until each single stalk
became a swirl of putrid verdigris
quite like an unpent sea of sporing molds.
The waves would never touch our house but sprayed
the unbound foam our way and sickened you.'”

“My eyes, blinded inward from present storms
by silver mirror drops within my skull,
can see the image of my past alone,
which was so glorious in contrast to
this life that I cannot resist the warmth
of it. The mossy calm. The rains and suns.
The thought and not the feel are all I have.
I do what I must to eat and drink.
I dream and await my patron’s memories.
I know my dream and shed my mottled skin.”

The watchman, spending time withdrawn, timeless
with clocks and punch cards, leads his dog through pipes
and cauldrons, listens as the liquids spill through
silver tanks to rusted railcars, watches
moonlight, twists a watch key in the pouched clock.
He shuffles to the wash room for a slow hour’s rest.
The man with icy sockets sits, drinks some
coffee from a thermos, strokes his mongrel,
stares through midnight rain and lightning, grabs his
knees, clasping his calves in the wrinkled palms
of his fists; his fœtal softness in an armchair,
seeing his shoulders touched by father’s hands.


Featured image

© me, 1975, previously unpublished


Everyone thought it was an illusion, a mass hallucination, and no one mentioned it to anyone else.

Everyone thought it was an illusion, a mass hallucination, and no one mentioned it to anyone else.

Then it was obvious that something was going on and that whatever had been would no longer be.

Sometime around that time the tides started placing boats on the ground and if they were placed back in the water, replacing them somewhere else. The tides started knocking the piles out from under beach houses and floating away docks built at some point to watch the water come and go and exert its slow, gentle magic on the torments of the human mind. Fish were left on shore, gawping at this irregularity and at their abbreviated lives. And then people started getting grabbed by the tides and taken out and away into deep watery ravines that would open and shut with a shattering clap hundred of meters or kilometers towards the horizon. Ships would get devoured in one gulp in these hungry seas. Islands that once communicated with the large islands of the Americas, Africa, and Eurasia (as the deserts between them were washed away never to return) went silent and were believed gone forever. The waters would rise further today than they did yesterday, sweeping areas of the shoreline that had never seen tides and never been drenched except in rain. And each time they rose curious people who had come out to see where all the water had gone were surprised to see the water coming for them faster than they could run. The local authorities told people to flee inland and all of the roads were packed with cars that could go no further until the cars ahead of them had moved on to higher ground. Sometimes and for some people, the cars no longer worked as they had run out of gas and become obstacles to the onslaught of cars and people fleeing the ravening waters and some begged rides, which were either given to them or, when there were too many useless cars and too many fearful people, not. So the people walked uphill and inland until they couldn’t and hoped that would be far enough. It was for some and not for others, who were pulled back to the deeps increasingly cloudy with lives.

And sometime around that time it occurred to the people who watched such things that the smiling face of the full moon no longer beamed down upon them but had turned, at first imperceptibly, then more dramatically, then quickly and presented all its faces, one after another, as if they were frames in a hand-drawn animation from a hundred years ago. Click-click-click, the faces went, a new face every hour, then minute, then second. And the moon started wobbling as it orbited, as a top running down wobbles at both ends as it is about to drop to the floor and flounder through a couple of useless cycles before it comes to a halt. But the moon wasn’t stopping, it was spinning faster and wobbling faster and its ellipsis around the earth was pulling the tides higher and higher, nearly emptying the ocean at its perigees and sucking the shorelines dry at its apogees.

Then the earthquakes started. Mountains split and deserts disappeared in the raw wounds festered into them. Water washed through them and disappeared, returning in plumes of steam and ash. Volcanos shuddered from their naps and spat mud and lava into the clouds, hanging there like giant question marks over the earth.

Then it became terrifying. The moon’s ellipsis shifted subtly and then it was obvious what was happening. It would get further away at apogee but at perigee, it became a huge, leering, spinning, cackling face grimacing into the hearts of those who remained alive, like the corpulent, round-faced relative playing a discomfiting game of peek-a-boo with a newborn; “WHO’S your uncle? WHO’S your uncle? WHO’S YOUR UNCLE!!!”

But all of that was nothing when it finally came so close that it started brushing the edge of the atmosphere with its pock-marked visage. Tendrils of fire trailed behind its circuit and the tendrils were bits of the moon’s face so the craters became more numerous and deeper and the face became more angry and unpleasant with every orbit and more trails of fire became more rocks falling through the sky and pointing incandescent fingers at the places they would impact if they ever arrived. But they didn’t. They just burnt by the hundreds, then thousands and then millions every day as the moon swung closer in its perilous orbit. And the people who were left realized that this was not going to end well. Not at all.

But those who watched such things noticed something odd about the moon as this all happened. They noticed that way up near what was once the reliable north cap a hole appeared, first fairly small, then wider, then deeper, or as deep as the watchers could tell with their telescopes and satellites, which were rapidly being splattered against the hard dome of the air like bugs on a windshield. It was when it became deeper that the wobble had shifted and the orbit had changed and they had seen that there was some kind of apparatus near the north cap and that the hole was extruding a plume of dust up and back onto the surface around the hole. And there may have been some kind of vessel but it was hard to tell as the dust seemed to mask that part of the picture, so maybe there was no vessel or apparatus but the moon was surely doing its prolate dance and scraping the atmosphere and sending these torrents of rocks into the air.

Then the day came when it came too close and the air turned to fire around the moon as the rocks crumbled off and burned into the earth, larger and larger until they did hit the huge remaining islands or the catastrophe of the seas leaping from their abyssal canyons. And the moon braked further and slowed until, finally, the atmosphere joined the fire and burnt as well. And the moon crashed, splitting the earth open and disgorging both cores.

Sometime near the end, it came to make sense to those who watched. They had wondered what had happened to the moons around Neptune and Uranus, Saturn and Jupiter and Mars, and what had happened to those planets before they had disappeared.

The vessel and its apparatus came in, swept up what remained, and moved on.


Under Pressure (The Mess Pt 2 App. 1)

When we say we are “under pressure,” we should intend that to be a positive thing.

Introductory note: Anyone who has really thought about their chemistry or physics classes, rather than just endure them, has realized (perhaps in other words) that the seemingly endless equations that define our physicochemical universe (which includes the biological universe 😉 ) are a bit like those Russian matryoshka nesting dolls. If you define one phenomenon with an equation, you are probably well on your way to “nesting” that equation within several other equations that all define some aspect of what you were defining. This article is going to be like that and it is pretty inescaple. Have patience and enjoy.

When we say we are “under pressure,” we should intend that to be a positive thing. If we weren’t, we would be more diaphanous than outer space. Short of that meaning we have become a hive-mind of neutrinos, we should celebrate being under pressure! You could say that being pressured is the opposite of being vacuous but that might be unkind.

I’ve written two of three posts on The Mess (Part 1 and Part 2 so far). In Part 2, I spent a good bit of time using the word “vacuum” but I didn’t end up talking about what that means, except that a complete vacuum has never been achieved and it is difficult to achieve high vacuum (aka low pressure) without leaks occurring. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to rectify that issue.

Our earthly pressure is due to the force that the weight of atmospheric gases (dry air is a mixture comprised mostly of nitrogen (78.09%) and oxygen (20.95%); “wet” air includes varying amounts of water and is lighter due to the lower atomic mass of water (18 amu) vs. nitrogen (28 amu) or oxygen (32 amu)) place on us. Since we experience the weight of the atmosphere, we also feel a force that is inextricably linked to our experience of pressure; that force is gravity and is related to the masses of objects interacting with each other over a distance and to the gravity constant, defined by Sir Isaac Newton.


Mass and weight are different. Mass is a physical constant related to the number of protons and neutrons in atoms of various elements and their isotopes (electrons, although very important, add negligible mass and are ignored here). Weight is the mass of an item (the sum of all of its constituent atoms) multiplied by the force exerted upon it by gravitational acceleration (gn), or:

W = m * gn

Mass, then, is weight divided by gravitational acceleration. By the way, because stuff like gravity is usually complicated it is worth stating that it is not constant but changes with latitude and altitude on earth (and between planets, stars, galaxies, etc., but that folds the theory of relativity and we are not going there). As r2 is larger for a person standing on top of Mt. Everest, even though the mass of the earth is larger at that point, the acceleration due to gravity is less, although the mass of the person remains constant (ignoring any hypothermic dehydration that is going on).

Gravity vs Altitude

The mass of earth’s atmosphere – all those speedy, invisible molecules of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and water racing about and colliding with each other – is estimated at about 5.15×1018 kg. That’s a mass-ive amount of air! And all of that air is multiplied by the force of gravity pulling it towards the nickel-iron alloy center of our planet. To reprise, that is atmospheric pressure. Imagine a square inch on top of your skull, roughly postage stamp-sized (stamp size may vary with special editions and countries and may be larger than they appear in your rear view mirror). The atmosphere extends about 12 kilometers above your head (this varies with your location, etc.). There are, therefore, 1,200,000 cubic centimeters of air above your head and that contains a hole bunch of molecules of “air,” which is a mixture of gases. Every day at sea level, with variations due to latitude, that square inch of skull experiences 14.7 pounds (6.7 kg) of pressure from the weight of all that column of air pressing down upon you. The square inch is sort of misleading as it is really a COLUMN of air reaching all the way to where the atmosphere on this planet fades off into space. All of those molecules in a miles-high column with an area of a square inch – 14.7 lbs (14.7 pounds per square inch (psi) or about half to a third of the pressure in your car tires). And each square inch of your body that points skyward, whether you are standing, prone, supine, or lying on your side, gets this same treatment. If there were no gravity, the air would way 1/6th as much and the pressure would be reduced (if there were no gravity, the atmosphere would have dissipated into space so I wouldn’t have to explain this).

That’s atmospheric pressure. In a volume of air enclosed in a metal vessel within a scientific instrument, that same pressure is present if the instrument has not been hooked up to vacuum pumps and the air evacuated, in other words, if the instrument has just been assembled but not initiated for use. Scientists don’t use psi as a useful measurement. Instead, they use 1 atmosphere as the pressure at sea level; it is one of two measurement standards folded into virtually all chemical and physical measurements. The measurements are “standard temperature and pressure (STP)” and are 1 atmosphere (or 760 torr or 760 mmHG or 101,325 Pascals (101 kPa) or 1.01325 bar (1,013 millibar) and 273.15 Kelvin (K) or 32°F or 0°C (the Kelvin scale, based on absolute zero, does not use the “°” sign). The different units make use in some physics and chemistry a little easier, hence the large number of pressure and temperature scales. There is also a “standard ambient temperature and pressure,” which uses 298.15 K as the standard temperature; that is often more useful as it is a comfortable laboratory temperature. Standardization and calibration of scientific instruments to consensus measurements allow experiments to be compared conveniently between laboratories. Even if SATP (or STP) is not used in every laboratory, it can be used to understand how conditions might need adjustment to replicate results lab-to-lab.

As Parmenides said in about 485 B.C.E. “Nature abhors a vacuum,” although I’m pretty sure he said it ancient Greek. Again, we find that so long ago the Greeks were constructing rules of the universe that would not be proven for a few millennia but they were correct. This idea, of the implausibility of a complete vacuum in the universe, got many people thinking, among them Empedocles, Plato, Aristotle, and so forth into the present era where attempt at achieving a complete vacuum will continue until attained. It’s in our nature.




How is this done? Using various kinds of pumps. How does that work? If you pump water, you know quite well how it works. The water goes up a tube, through the pump, which has an object in it of various designs intended to exert a change in pressure on the material to be moved. The devices are sort of like tight-fitting fan blade in a water- (or gas-) proof housing. As it turns, it exerts a force on the water and the “pumpate” (to coin a word) is moved from point A to point B. If the water source was finite and can be inspected after pumping, you will see some volume of water left in the source. Move the tube around and try to “vacuum” it up and it will run up the tube a little bit and trickle back down. The same kind of thing happens with gases.


There are a bunch of different pump mechanisms, all of which are fascinating in their own right but the same principle applies to all of them: move something from one place to another by exerting a superior force against an inertial force (e.g. gravity, magnetic, electric, normal, air resistance, friction (viscosity), tension, spring). Vacuum pumps move gases.

For ease of calculations, let’s pretend the volume with our exotic scientific instrument (a x-ray photoelectron spectrometer (XPS)) is 22.4 liters (L). To make this relatable for people still using the U.S. “customary unit” system rather than metrics, 22.4 L. is about a gallon more than the typical upside down water jug found in various offices. Imagine such a space at the center of the following instrument (the actual analytical volume in which samples are analyzed is much smaller than 22.4 L.):


In this version of an XPS with the 22.4 L. volume of air at SATP (standard ambient temperature and pressure), there are Avogadro’s number of individual gas molecules in the vessel at 1 atm pressure. Avogadro (1776-1856) was an Italian scientist who worked out that there would be 6×1023 molecules of any gas in 22.4 L. if the temperature and pressure were kept constant. This is a HUGE number of molecules but if they are molecules of gas they will always occupy 22.4 L. at SATP. This number of molecules is called a mole and correlates the number of molecules, by way of its atomic mass, in a mole of molecules. It is a constant number, just like there are always 12 of an item in a dozen or 144 of an item in a gross.

Let’s compare some other, more visible molecules. Because (in part) a molecule of water has a mass of 18 atomic mass units (amu) a mole of water molecules weighs 18 grams and occupies a volume of about 18 milliliters (0.018 L.). You could put 55 moles of water in a 1 L. container (55moles x 18 milliliters) – and 1,244.4 moles of water in a 22.4 L. container. Why? One of the reasons that water is a liquid between 0C and 100C is because all of them hydrogen bond to each other.

Gases at SATP do not make friendly clusters of molecules; instead, they bounce against each other and against the walls of any container with maddening speed, like bumper cars at the fair driven at blinding speed.

A property called the root mean square velocity of gases can be calculated, a measurement which is temperature and mass-dependent; gases with low masses move at higher speeds than those with higher masses. A molecule of hydrogen (it occurs in nature as a molecule with two covalently bonded atoms of hydrogen, or H2) has a velocity (speed) of 1,920 meters per second (m/s) or 4,295 miles/hour. A molecule of oxygen has a velocity of 485 m/s or 1,085 miles/hour, right around one-fourth the velocity. This makes sense as one molecule of hydrogen is one-fourth the mass of a molecule of oxygen. If we were to look at fluorine, also diatomic, with an atomic mass of about 19 amu we would see a velocity somewhat slower than oxygen at about 424 m/s. Why do I tell you all of this? Because the pressure (1 atm) in that vessel is related to the mass of all of those molecules but it also related to all of those invisible particles smashing into each other and into the walls of the container at those mind-imploding speeds.

XPS plumbing around the intro port
XPS Plumbing and Sample Intro Ports (Attribution)

We have our 22.4 L. vessel in the middle of the XPS instrument and it has 6×1023 molecules of air in it. To do our surface analysis experiments we are going to have to reduce the pressure in that vessel from 1 atm to as low as we can go, which will probably be between 9.87×10−13 and 9.87×10−16 atm. We will have two pumps connected in series (one after the other): (1) roughing pump and (2) turbomolecular pump. The purpose of the roughing pump is to reduce the air pressure in the xps instrument and in the turbomolecular pump to around 1×10−5 atm. After this is achieved, the turbomolecular pump is activated and it can reduce the pressure due to remaining gases to somewhere in the range of 9.87×10−13 to 9.87×10−16. The following video does a reasonable job of showing how a turbomolecular pump functions, although there are other videos available that examine the moving parts of these pumps.

In these ultra-high vacuum conditions it is important to remove as many of the gas molecules as possible. This is done with various types of ion pumps. The remaining gases are bombarded with energy sufficiently high to create positively charged ionic versions of the gases that then collide with the walls of the pump and react. The gases are no longer gases and no longer add to the pressure inside the apparatus being evacuated.

Placing aside the ion pump from our considerations, a couple of big problem lies at the heart of achieving an absolute vacuum – a vacuum in which there are literally zero gas atoms remaining in a volume (HxWxL or its cylindrical equivalent). The pumps are achieving a truly significant reduction in pressure but as they do there are fewer gas molecules and the mean free path of the individual molecules involves fewer collisions and more randomness. You will recall that these molecules are traveling at enormous speeds; as they approach the exit orifice attached to the pumps, they are no longer flowing as was possible at low vacuum, they are moving in increasingly random patterns. Some of these patterns direct the molecules back into the vessel we are attempting to empty.

Gas Flow Patterns due to decreased pressure
Attribution and In-depth Explanation

I watched a duck herder with his collies at a state fair some decades ago. The dogs had been trained remarkably by the herder and I assume that the ducks had also worked with these non-duck lifeforms previously. As the herder and the collies positioned themselves in ways to coerce the ducks into a cage, three ducks would enter but as the fourth duck approached, one duck would pop out, then another, then two ducks would go in and another would exit. This went on for a while and, perhaps because I had never seen it before, I found it to be extremely entertaining and funny. I also thought of the problem of trying to eat the remaining green peas in a metal bowl using only a knife (no pea-stabbing please!). The difference between these analogies and teasing the last gas molecules out of an evacuated volume is that the ducks eventually enter the cage and the peas will be eaten.

The reason I bring this up is that “herding” gas molecules out of a volume is a lot like this. Some exit, but others sort of bump around at the exit port and return to the cylinder to play a few more games of hyper-bumper cars with the walls of the vessel. As I read for this article, I saw some ultra-high vacuum wizards talk about how it is invevitably the hydrogen molecules that will not leave. These have the highest gas velocity and the lowest mass. They are also the most present element in the universe; about 74% of mass fraction of the universe composed of mass (only about 5% of the universe, the rest being composed of dark matter and dark energy) is made up of hydrogen.

To sum up:

  1. Atmospheric pressure is the force created by all of those gas molecules above your body being pulled towards the earth’s center of gravity (F=m*g);
  2. There are a whole bunch (6×1023) of gas molecules in a 22.4 L. container at SATP;
  3. Getting most of those gas molecules out of the container involves some spectacular types of pumps;
  4. Getting absolutely ALL of those gas molecules out of the container has never been achieved to date.

I have glossed over a huge and beautiful realm of gas laws in the above. These roll up into the enormous topic of thermodynamics  and kinetic theory. I will leave it to you (and future posts) to explore these further. They are a wonderful set of nesting dolls!


If I were to be remade just once

If I were to be remade just once
 And had a choice in all-time,
 I would choose ancient Greece,
 A student in the public square
 Learning from Socrates,
 Arguing with Plato and Antisthenes,
 Thinking new thoughts
 and laughing at the elders.

If I were to live and learn then,
 I would hope to scuttle beneath
 The perspicacious gaze of the gods,
 Hoping that a word, glance, or act
 Of mine avoids their languid quest
 To imbue another round of
 Helios’ sky-bound circuit
 With a flash of eternal cruelty.