Science and Technology Blog
This blog contains articles about science, technology and a life of faith.  Written by the rector of Grace, these articles first appeared as the trailer articles in the Weekly Grace email newsletter.

Helium and the Market

Helium, the upper right element on the periodic table. The first of the “rare gases” or “noble gases.”  Helium has two protons, two electrons and two neutrons. Its atomic weight is 4.0026. In case you are wondering, the extra .0026 mass is the rest mass of energy from nuclear spin and nuclear bonds. Pub chem gives us the basic scoop on Helium and compares it to “air” which is a mixture of elements. The most important property for Helium at STP (Standard Temperature and Pressure) is its density which is about 1/8 of air causing a Helium balloon to float in the air.

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The Overview Effect

Ask any astronaut what the most awe-inspiring thing they observed in space and you will be surprised. It is not the utter blackness of outer space punctuated by brilliant points of light that never twinkle. It is not the moonrise or sunrise over the earth, it is in fact, the earth.  Astronauts who are sufficiently awed are said to be subject to the “Overview Effect” which is a cognitive shift in awareness caused by seeing firsthand the earth from outer space.


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Bald Eagles – the Canary in the Ecosystem

This is an update on the Law of Unintended Consequences which may not have originated with Murphy, but he certainly extended the Law into new places. Basically, in any given system, anything that can go wrong will, plus a few others.


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Kekule’s Dream

By the early 1800s, chemists had devised accurate means of determining the molecular weight of a single molecule.  By the mid-1800s, ringed molecules were all the rage. Six-Carbon chains of hexane could be made to join head to tail in a ring (C6H12) called “cyclohexane.” The molecular “weight” of this molecule would be 84. These things bend and fold up like a chair, but they are less interesting in terms of their impact on living things.


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Patrick

Quick, what denomination is St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland? Anglican, of course. 

Although he was never canonized (declared a saint) by the Roman Catholic Church, St. Patrick was born in England in the fifth century, long before the Church of England and Rome had their differences (ten centuries later). Patrick served as a missionary to Ireland AFTER he had been enslaved by the Irish for six years as a teenager. He became a symbol of sacrificial love for one’s enemies.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, it was Patrick’s monasteries along with those in England that copied and retained ancient manuscripts in Greek, Hebrew, and Coptic. These manuscripts would pave the way for the establishment of European universities in the 13th century and the later movements of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Had the Irish and English monks not slavishly copied manuscripts they could barely read for seven centuries, our modern civilization would not exist.

In reading about Patrick’s life, you will find very little original source, reliable historical information – a problem not much different than the historicity of the bible. Claims whether he was captured by Irish raiders and enslaved or whether he was escaping service on the local town council are debated. Whether he committed some sort of financial impropriety is also debated. It is generally agreed that he founded many monasteries and converted many people from their pagan-Druid beliefs to Christianity.

I appreciate the fact that historians try to determine the facts of things and that the “real” Patrick may have had some issues here and there. But overall, history judges him by the bulk of the good things he did. We should try to do that for modern people as well.



Risks, Statistics, and Shameful Truth

Warning: Reading this may cause you to be exposed to college-level statistics concepts.

Life consists of assessing the risks of any situation and making a decision about what to do. It doesn’t matter whether you are going to the grocery store, planning a political campaign, or designing a mission to Mars. There are no risk-free alternatives in life.


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Were Adam and Eve Neandertals?

Modern two-legged primates of the species, homo sapiens, pride ourselves on our special place on the planet. After all, we are God’s chosen. It is true that when our ancestors traversed the Bering Sea ice bridge during an ice age, our entrance into the vast North American continent enabled us to hunt all of the large animal species to extinction. More recently, in the epic tale of Gilgamesh in today’s southern Iraq. Gilgamesh defies the gods by cutting down the forest. In return, the gods say they will curse the land with fire and drought. The Sumerians who created the story most likely deforested the land causing widespread desertification. By 2000 BC, soil erosion and salt buildup devastated agriculture. This forced the Sumerians to move north to Babylonia and Assyria as the first “climate refugees” in history. The first laws ever written to protect forests were decreed in the new Sumerian village of Ur.
 

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The February Triple Crown

Huh? In the next few days, a probe named “Hope” built by the United Arab Emirates will touch down on Mars, a day later a Chinese rover, Tianwen-1, will touch down, and the following week, NASA’s “Perseverance” rover will touch down. If successful, Perseverance will be our nation’s fifth robotic vehicle to traverse Martian soil since 1997. Two earlier missions in 1971 failed.
 
Why should we go to another planet? Why spend $3B on spacecraft when we could feed the poor here or give more tax breaks to billionaires? We’ve already been there four times, what more can we learn?
 

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Disease of the Soul

In a sermon January 3, I mentioned some statistics about children in the United States including childhood obesity which is, sadly, a rapidly growing problem. Later that week, a friend who heard the sermon and who is also a pediatrician mentioned an academic study about childhood obesity. I was aware of the general results of this study, but my friend went into detail.


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What a Wonderful World

In the wake of this week’s reprehensible political violence, I needed a side trip off the planet. No, I haven’t gone to the pearly gates, but I recently became aware of Mexican theoretical physicist, Miguel Alcubierre Moya[1], who has solved a specific case for Einstein’s field equations in general relativity to develop a serious proposal for matter traveling Faster Than Light (FTL).


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