It had rained all week, but not in any decisive way, more in the way that shrouds a town when it is immersed in a persistently thick fog bank, rain that doesn’t start in the clouds and hit the earth so much as materializes from the air and hangs there, going from side-to-side, eddying lazily before heading up or down, it doesn’t matter to the countless droplets, part of which have combined with the pale yellow gruel of the road and made a syrupy concrete that will, somehow and against all physical laws, become dust again once the fog has gone, a dust that could be composed of down-market biscuit flour and deeply aged grits, but is instead roughly two-thirds atomized oyster shells and one-third the finely desiccated sea creatures that eventually make sand, long after those spritely creatures have died, their skeletons drifting (in much the same way the fog does) to the sea floor.

It is in this glutinous concoction of aimless water droplets, pulverized oyster shells and diffuse sea creatures that the ’65 Plymouth finds itself, axle-deep, badly worn tires coated in flour and grits, trying to rock out of the rutted goo it has made since turning onto this road and disappearing into the live oaks shimmering with saturated Spanish moss, a road that can only be described as such because it is not part of the chaos of trees and undergrowth that spreads out in all directions round about, darkening into the mist, darkening into the black invisible in spite of this relatively early hour after noon.

One kid with a bad, unevenly short haircut and bad skin sits behind the wheel, gunning the engine, stopping, slamming the automatic transmission into reverse, gunning the engine, slamming it into forward, and so forth. Two of his friends, dirtier than the wheel-man, soaked to the skin, sweating – or at least adding their own salty mists to the soup that envelopes them  – push at the back of the one-and-a-half-ton collection of partially rusted steel each time the driver goes forward, while another of the quartet plunges away up the front each time he reverses, grunts and heartfelt, immature, wasteful curses barking out of their teenaged mouths with each effort.

They are out of sight of the nearest major road, which is paved but not major, so far down the direction they came that it too is a memory wrapped in mist and dark gray-green portent of the trees and their somber fruit. Why, which is what all of them think whenever a hormone-clotted synapse fires, are they doing this? At the end of the road is a clearing that looks out over a bend in the river, a place that gets few visitors due to its location and approach, a place where teens can consume the six-pack one of them stole from an ice chest without being seen by parents, friends, acquaintances, preachers, police, sheriffs or anyone else on earth. It is a clearing where a secret can come into being and die without ever being known if only it can be reached. And it cannot. Be reached. If the car is trapped up to its axle and quickly heading towards being immobilized on a car-sized, car-shaped  bar of syrupy concrete that is being abraded slowly away by four badly worn tires and four idiots looking for a moment of freedom.

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A Brief, Mysterious Biography

I was born in 1953 to people I don’t know and raised by people I wish I knew better. I have an academic background in literature and science and have worked in positions of increasing responsibility for over thirty years in one realm of the healthcare industry.

Biographical note: I was born in 1953 to people I don’t know and raised by people I wish I knew better. I have an academic background in literature and science and have worked in positions of increasing responsibility for over thirty years in one realm of the healthcare industry. I am interested in many areas of knowledge; literature and science (obviously), but also film, art, many types of music, various episodes in our peculiar, shared, often ignored history, political behavior (rather than politics), various religions. I wish there were more time in every day and more days in every life. I have more books than I know what to do with and keep on adding things to my wishlist that I may never get to read, but it is better to be curious than not, alive than dead.

The Water Cycle

The hydrologic cycle is a central phenomenon enabling life on Earth. It is complex on a macroscopic and molecular level and functions interactively with every aspect of our biological, geological, and physical world. Its impact on humanity has anthropological, economic, environmental and social implications that are numerous.

The hydrologic cycle is a central phenomenon enabling life on Earth. It is complex on a macroscopic and molecular level and functions interactively with every aspect of our biological, geological, and physical world. Its impact on humanity has anthropological, economic, environmental and social implications that are numerous.

The Water Cycle

(“Water cycle,” n.d.)

Yet it all starts with one of the simplest of all chemical species – the water molecule. Only 3 atoms in composition, 18 daltons in mass, less than 300 picometers (282 trillionths of a meter) in diameter, its complexity is the subject of numerous books and articles. Under the right conditions, it is a solid, a liquid, a gas, an acid, a base, a neutral atom (although this is rarely true in nature), a ricocheting billiard ball as a gas and/or a component in a complex, flickering lattice of other water molecules in liquid and solid form.

The Water Molecule(Blamire, 2000)

Even with this level of complexity, it is impossible to understand the water component of the hydrological cycle without understanding that water loves to mingle with other molecules. If water encounters a solid ionic compound, like the wide range of salts found in soil, streams, rivers, lakes and oceans, it pries the ions apart and engages them in three three-dimensional ballet of solubility. If it encounters an acid, it becomes the hydronium ion in the process of dissolving the acid; if it encounters a base, it becomes the hydroxide ion in the process of dissolving the base. If it encounters reactive gases, like carbon dioxide or sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides, it forms carbonic or sulfuric or nitric acids. If it encounters something that is dry, like the surface of a stone or a clump of clay, it erodes and moves some of it to another location, sometimes near its origin and sometimes far away. If it encounters discrete materials, it breaks them down and mingles with them. If it encounters organic compounds, some of which are non-polar and not attracted to the water molecule, it causes them to form droplets or micelles, which are then swept along by the water. With other organic compounds, such as esters and ketones and alkenes, it reacts with them to produce polar products, which can then react with other organic compounds.

In living cells, water is the elixir in which life happens. If a tree, a cell, a human or a cat encounters water, it is sipped up and used to fortify these water-dependent structures, which collapse and turn to dust without its liquid sustenance. Water carries inorganic and organic ions; it carries phospholipids and amino acids; it carries nucleic acids and sugars; it encourages fatty acids to circle the wagons and create cell walls, across which the cell’s supplies are pumped by active and passive portals that open and close for water and its many friends. It encourages DNA to spiral inwards as the nucleotides bond and the sugar/phosphate backbone prickle outwards into the cell’s aqueous soup. Information could not travel if not for the charged molecules that water helps create and carry. But enough about water the molecule. Let’s consider water, the cycle.

Let’s pretend, for an instant, that water “starts” somewhere and continues through the cycle from this starting point. Let’s pretend it starts as precipitation. Forget for a minute that precipitation starts with clouds and clouds start with evaporation and evaporation occurs because of wind, sun, and atmospheric pressure. Forget for a moment that water precipitates as a solid now and then. Let’s just pretend it rains. What happens when it rains? Droplets of water between 0.02 and 0.25 inches in diameter reach terminal velocity of between 5 and 20 miles per hour and strike whatever is beneath them. Each raindrop is rarely pure water; for rain to occur, the vapor in clouds condenses around “a microscopic particle of smoke, dust or salt” (USA Today). In a fascinating calculation, Bob Swanson, a weather editor with USA Today, provides an estimate of the number of droplets that fall in a storm:

“Assuming an average thunderstorm is 15 miles in diameter. Assuming a circular base of the storm, the area of the storm’s cloud base is about 175 square miles. Now let’s assume that .25 inches of rain falls from the storm. This yields a total volume of rainfall of around 175 billion cubic inches. Now if we assume a spherical raindrop, the volume of an average size drop would be about 1/10,000th of a cubic inch. Dividing the total rainfall by the volume of an average raindrop gives a total number of raindrops around 1,620 trillion.”

When one also assumes that each droplet reaches terminal velocity, there is tremendous energy unleashed in a storm. Then think of all the storms that happen and all the energy from all the storms. This is a lot of force dropping out of the sky! When old leaves are struck by raindrops, they are ripped from their homes, becoming compost for new life. If dead things are struck by water, bacteria and molds help decay the creature and turn it back into nutrients, parts of other cycles of nitrogen and carbon and sulfur. If a rock or soil is struck, small amounts are displaced and move away from their source. For evidence of what rain can do, examine the Badlands of South Dakota or the gaping tear known as the Grand Canyon or the alluvial plains of South and North Carolina – created from Appalachian precipitation on mountains that were once five times as high as they are now. Yes, some of this was due to the action of rivers, but the rivers were replenished by rain.


(PBroks13, n.d.)

Different sizes of raindrops:

  1. A) Raindrops are not tear-shaped, as most people think.
  2. B) Very small raindrops are almost spherical in shape.
  3. C) Larger raindrops become flattened at the bottom, like that of a hamburger bun, due to air resistance.
  4. D) Large raindrops have a large amount of air resistance, which makes them begin to become unstable.
  5. E) Very large raindrops split into smaller raindrops due to air resistance.

One way that water re-enters the hydrologic cycle is through watersheds, defined as “a land area whose run-off drains into any river, stream, lake or ocean” (USEPA, June 1998, p. 1). Run-off doesn’t only occur on the earth’s surface, though. Of the 332 million cubic miles of water on our planet, 97% of it is salt water and approximately 1.7% of it is groundwater (USGS); only 46% of this is fresh water. This is replenished by seepage into the ground from the various types of precipitation. If we were to dig a perfect hole in the ground, we would find the upper layers a mixture of air and water, but lower layers would become increasingly wet. Eventually, we would reach a level where water occupies all of the space between grains of sand and gravel. This level is called the water table.

Water Table(“Water table,” n.d.)

Of course, some of the water all courses down streams to rivers and rivers to lakes and lakes to seas and oceans. Some of the water that enters streams and rivers and lakes and oceans weeps out of the ground into these bodies of water, depending on the relative elevation of the water table to the bodies of water in the area. Some of the water in the water table is pumped up for use in homes and factories as well.

The water cycle really gets complex when precipitation falls on and interacts with man-made phenomenon, like roads and highways, or human industries like oil refineries and coal-burning power plants and waste pools for cattle and swine and agricultural fields full of pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers, or human by-products like landfills or untreated waste streams from storm drains. When water, this remarkable molecule, plunges to earth and mobilizes the products of human industry, the entire water cycle becomes contaminated in the process. Water takes our waste and pollutes the rivers, lakes and oceans, creating imbalances in nutrient cycles and killing creatures that depend on a balance between water and salts, nutrients and energy to live their normal lives. Water releases volatile organic compounds from human industry and they become part of our atmosphere. Water mixes with the sulfur and nitrogen oxides and precipitate back to earth as strong acids that change the equilibrium state that nature requires for its magic.


Rights for use of the raindrop illustration are granted by Pbroks13 as follows: “I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.”

PBroks13. (Artist). (n.d.). Raindrop. [Print Graphic]. Retrieved from

Bell, J.A. (2005). Chemistry: A project of the American Chemical Society. New York: W.H. Freeman and Co.

Flynn, D.J. (ed). (2009). The Nalco water handbook (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Co.

Jacobson, M.C., Charlson, R.J., Rodhe, H., Orians, G.H. (2000). Earth system science. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Gruver, J. and Luloff, A.E. (2008). Engaging Pennsylvania teachers in watershed education. Journal of Environmental Education, 40(1), 43–54.

Heimlich, J.E., Oberst, M.C., Spitler, L. (1993). Two H’s and an O: A teaching resource packet on water education. Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse for Science, Mathematics, and Environmental Education.

Lacosta-Gabari, I., Fernández-Manzanal, R., and Sánchez-González, D. (2009). Designing, testing, and validating an attitudinal survey on an environmental topic. Journal of Chemical Education, 86(9), 1099-1103.

Marques, C., Izquierdo, M., Espinet, M. (2006). Multimodal science teachers’ discourse in modeling the water cycle. Science Education, 90, 202–226.

Sträng, M., and Åberg-Bengtsson, L. (2010). “Where do you think water comes from?” Teacher-pupil dialogues about water as an environmental phenomenon. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 54(10), 313-333.

Walker, M., Kremer, A., Schluter, K. (2007). The dirty water challenge. Science and Children, July, 26-29.

Winter, T.C., Harvey, J.W., Franke, O.L., Alley, W.M. (1998). Ground water and surface water: a single resource. Denver, CO: U.S. Geological Survey.

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(n.d.). Water graphic. [Web Graphic]. Retrieved from

(n.d.). Water table. [Web Graphic]. Retrieved from

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Blamire, J. (Artist). (2000). Water molecule. [Web Graphic]. Retrieved from

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The definitions for this word have a surprising beauty. They lead from a fairly concrete example to ideas that are far more ephemeral: (1) A way or track laid down for walking or made by continual treading; (2) The course or direction in which a person or thing is moving; (3) A course of action or conduct

The definitions for this word have a surprising beauty. They lead from a fairly concrete example to ideas that are far more ephemeral:

  1. A way or track laid down for walking or made by continual treading
  2. The course or direction in which a person or thing is moving
  3. A course of action or conduct

There are a couple more, but these will do nicely. Movement along a path is usually imagined, seen in the mind’s eye, but a path of conduct may require the individual to remain immobile, mind cleared, thinking only the thoughts that come without thought.

Whether consciously or not, we all describe paths during our time. We also define many more paths than we “walk.” We define a path to becoming a physician, but somehow become a lawyer or a laborer. We define a path to becoming a pro bono environmental lawyer, but do patent work. We define a path towards perfection in all of our professional work, but end up cutting corners and doing less than we know we should. Some of us don’t expect much of ourselves, but end up surprising the world. This is sort of like the Yiddish proverb “man plans and God laughs.” I wonder how many of us, if all humans were polled from the past, present or future, would say, without prevarication “I did exactly what I expected to do when I was five years old and everything that happened to me – everything – was just as I expected.”

Let us imagine a perfectly spherical object that we will call human knowledge. Let us imagine this object when humans first came into being. By this, I mean when the first *human* memories started accumulating and the first *human* experiences were had and then passed on to children. I place “human” in asterisks because it is doubtful to me that we will ever know for a certainty when memories and experiences were first translatable across generations or perhaps species. Did pre-sapiens humans have memories and experiences that were somehow passable to our immediate Homo sapiens antecedents? It’s worth wondering about, but no answer will probably ever be found in the bones.

Back to the object: the perfectly spherical object is tiny and represents all human knowledge when we first became “wise (sapiens).” From that early, imaginary, perfectly spherical object radiates a huge number of imaginary lines – vectors – out from the object. The lines are the paths that describe the potential for knowledge growth, each in a very specific “direction.” One line may be a line for learning the long “A” sound for human speech. Another may be for learning various ways of walking. Another may be learning to differentiate edible plants from toxic ones. Another for learning types of rock – flint, chalk, marble, granite, limestone, shale, mica, etc. Another for watching the stars at night, another for observing living things growing and changing, day after day, another for watching tides come in or waves break. As those early humans learned more, stored memories about these observations, passed their knowledge on to their elders, peers, partners, progeny, communities, imagine that tiny sphere bulging out ever so slightly in the direction of the vector we have imaginarily assigned to that type of knowledge. As we continued to roam the earth, grow families, watch them die, hunted, planted, gathered, farmed, fished, slept and woke and told stories to each other, as we continued to query our world and the sky and stars above it, as more knowledge accumulated, our knowledge sphere grew, unevenly, in fits of lumpiness, but along these imaginary vectors out towards the possible terminus of each vector that represented absolutely everything that could ever be known about any thin slice of the overall possible sphere of human knowledge. In those early days, the lumpiness grew out along the vectors for communal interaction, subsistence, group and self-protection, some kind of language (or languages – we’ll never know how many there were), but the lumpiness did not grow at all in the direction of vast distances – like how far the stars were away – or in the direction of minute phenomena – like microbes and molecules and atoms. The lumpiness grew along the vector for passing whatever knowledge was deemed worthy, through what were considered facts and what were less facts and more fictions, through speculations regarding what was completely unknowable to our antecedents tens of millennia ago. The lumpiness did not bulge along the vector for semiconductor design or organic synthesis or n-dimensional mathematics or computer programming – or along a vector for writing stuff down! So many other directions were ignored for those long, early millennia in our existence, not out of malice, but from ignorance that there was any there there (apologies to both our antecedents and G. Stein).

But the sphere, not so sphery anymore but a post-spherical collection of asymmetric protrusions with vectors of various finite lengths poking out like spines on a pufferfish or quills on an annoyed porcupine, keeps on growing in fits and starts as knowledge and communal memories and speculations and stories are built and exchanged and kept alive. The paths, the vectors are subsumed in the new skin of the growing post-spherical shape of “all human knowledge.” There are also webs of interconnections between the vectors, but let’s keep our metaphor simple for now and recognize that the metaphor attempts to illuminate something far more complicated.

During this process, facts crystallized: “a smooth, round stone makes grain into a powder;” “a long, strong stick can be sharpened and used to hunt;” “one cycle of light and dark is followed by another;” “some people are friendly and others are not,” and so on. While the facts are accumulating, so are the mysteries: “what makes the sky dark and light?;” “what makes the thunder and lightning?;” “why was my village destroyed and my friends killed when the river rose?;” “why do so many children die?;” “why are we here?;” “what is ‘here’ and how did it come to be?” Not all of these facts are, of course, passed along as new humans are born. Some facts are learned, or not, as the need arises. Utility of a smooth, round stone, making of a spear, proper use of a plow are complete mysteries until they are taught afresh and as humans have developed technologies over the millennia, it is far more likely new children will learn the use of a tablet computer than a smooth, round stone  from their community.

So the lumpy sphere (1) starts small and symmetrical with every new child and is comprised of purely autonomic and genetically proscribed (pre-scribed?) abilities and (2) is fashioned by the needs of the child’s community as they grow. A young fellow growing up in an isolated Amazonian tribe or in New Guinea will develop their sphere quite unlike that of a child in suburban North America, but each will start with a sphere of possibility and develop their knowledge along vectors as they need to. The isolated child can learn just as much about contemporary particle physics as the suburban youth and (perhaps) the suburban child just as much about shimmying up trees and fashioning tubers into a wholesome meal. The suburban kid can spend their lives learning about a whole series of video games or about the lives of the suspiciously rich and unduly famous or they can grow their knowledge to grasp a vast array of skills and lore. Thermodynamic laws and their corollaries as applied to noble gases – and all the accompanying knowledge necessary to comprehend what that entails? Done! Coding in an ever-increasing armamentarium of languages, plus appropriate knowledge of their use in accompanying hardware? Absolutely? Cooking organic vegan Asian fusion meals using only locally sourced foods? Covered! So can the kid from a place that almost no one (except them and their family) knows about do all of the above? Yes they can! The small sphere of no known color prickly with vectors of possible knowledge can grow in any way it is trained if its owner, the seat in which it will function, makes the necessary effort (although perhaps some of us are better at learning some stuff than others are – but that’s another matter for another potential post).

For some reason, the human mind answers questions with stories – in the fictional sense – when no answers seem obvious, seem easy to grasp. Some of the mysteries listed above are now well-understood, at least by folks who embraced rational inquiry. What animates us? Let’s call it a “soul” or a “spirit.” How did the universe come to be? There was nothing and “god” made everything to fill the void (earth-wide, so many “gods,” so let’s keep the name in small letters until we visit the topic later on). What keeps the earth suspended in the sky? Why, it’s turtles, turtles all the way down!

The problem with these and other stories is that they blithely attempt to answer complicated questions as if the answers were known to a certainty. They presume to represent human understanding, going as far back as stories were passed between members of communities, as infallible. “We understand perfectly all questions posed to us,” say some humans to all that inquire. In fact, we are all on a path to understanding each line, each vector of inquiry in our shared, global, lumpy, not-so-spherical, not-so-symmetrical collection of knowledge. When our observations and our analyses have run out of plausible hypotheses and theories and laws, at least until new means of observations and data collection can be contrived, then it is time for the communal “us” to say “I don’t know.”

I stress the communal “us” for a few reasons: (1) we are social creatures (or are wired that way); (2) none of us individually can know everything that has ever been understood and documented by the greater “us;” (3) knowledge, both rational and irrational, has been a cumulative phenomenon for as long as stories, oral and written, have been documented.

Let’s take one of these imaginary vectors, lines, paths and talk about what progress along a knowledge path “looks” like. First of all, I’ve made the diagram below, but it does some things quite poorly. First, it breaks up the transitions from black through various shades of gray in a way that cannot accurately portray the transitions. The labels are more useful, but also imply absolute ranges for the knowledge that might fall within each one.

20160625 Knowledge Vector

In general, though, the diagram suggests progress in a direction – along a knowledge vector, if you will – and the labels are:

  1. Knowledge within common reach – this is knowledge that will come to most people as they work with people in their community, including parents, peers, community members, teachers, etc.
  2. Knowledge to be gained through some level of study of precedent learning – this is knowledge that will only be gained, with or without teachers, if the “pupil” reads the work, works the problems, does the experiments, develops their own insights into the precedent work, pursues a career thinking about the matters studied on a regular basis, or pursues an avocation that has the same effect. For brevity’s sake, this can include mastery of a skill, science, technology, etc.
  3. Knowledge to be gained through de novo observation, data analysis, hypothesis testing – this is knowledge that has not yet been achieved, but can be through additional investigation, experimentation, innovation, novel data analytics of new or existing observations, engineering, etc. It may be achievable in one year or ten or one hundred, but persistence and insight will result in new information added to the sum of all previous knowledge.
  4. Knowledge most probably beyond reach in perpetuity – this is knowledge that is highly likely to be unknowable given our place in time and the tools we may be able to create in area 3 for anything like the foreseeable future (vide supra). This may include items in the past (e.g. exactly how long did the saurian extinction take and between what BCE years (this is the problem of specificity – we know the extinction took place, but completely accurate dating and duration are beyond the pale); was there a universe before our universe? (this may be a problem of data collection – all existing models of universe age can only “see” back to what is hypothesized to be the start of our universe, but was there something equally as huge before our universe?) or it may be items in the future (e.g. exactly when will we be able to measure with certainty dark matter and/or dark energy?; are there practical ways to travel between interstellar distances that have the effect of exceeding the speed of light?) or it may be matters that lie within us (e.g. exactly how does the brain/mind work?).

My proposition is this: we would all do better in this world if we paid more attention to vectors 2 and 3. Progress along vector 1 will be achieved if our parents, peers, community, teachers, etc. take care of their responsibilities. This happens a lot of the time, but it does not happen 100% of the time – and this needs attention all by itself. We can all work together to ensure that every child born in every country progresses successfully through vector 1 to (at least) vector 2. Progress in vector 2 requires nurturing, encouragement, resources for the child/young adult to achieve what they can, but it also requires hard work on the part of the child/young adult. Not everyone will choose vector 3 as a path for their lives – and that is okay. It is a personal choice, but if the previous achievements were fulfilled, at least vector 3 can be addressed partially, if not completely.

But vector 4 should not claim our time or energy. The first stanza of the poem attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr is helpful in this regard, although I like demystifying it:

“Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.”

(There is a dispute that what we have come to know as the serenity prayer was actually penned by Niebuhr, so I use this version because it seems more likely that he did.)

Another way of saying this, although also by a person with a theistic bent, is found in the opening lines of “An Essay on Man: Epistle II” by Alexander Pope (1688–1744):

“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.”

While Pope viewed this path as the only proper way of dealing with the certainty of a divinity, I view it as a very similar (and wise) caution as Niebuhr’s: pay attention to matters that can be addressed by “you,” human! It is, in its way, a very Buddhistic perspective as well: we all suffer and the desire to control matters beyond our ability leads to much of this suffering. Sounds like Niebuhr, hmm?

So, take a path (you will take many simultaneous paths (a course of action or conduct) – and that’s a good and inevitable thing) – and follow it (them) through as far as you possibly can (or not – it’s your life and your decision). But when you reach the place in the path where it fades into nothingness, do not presume to know what lies beyond – unless you can communally create the tools to go further. It is okay to say “I do not know what lies ahead.” It is not okay to make stuff up and speculate wildly what may lie ahead. Attend to the wisdom of Niebuhr and Pope. Attend to the words of the Buddha. When you arrive where the path fades, say “I do not know” and work another path. There is some joy, some happiness in letting go of what you cannot control and attending to that which you can influence through hard work and insight.