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.

A Hundred Pounds of Clay

A few of us can remember the Gene McDaniels’ song of 1961, “A Hundred Pounds of Clay,” but did you know that this extrapolation from the creation story of Genesis might be more scientifically accurate than might guess?    I am referring to a 1985 “Clay hypothesis” in the field of “albiogenesis” or the “origin of life.”  In the first billion years or so of our planet’s existence, conditions on the surface were more like hell than the earth we know today.  There was no oxygen in the atmosphere.  Volcanoes belched toxic gases of sulfur, cyanide and nitric acid.  The planet was constantly bombarded by large meteors and comets bringing much of the water that fills our oceans.  There were no plants or any life whatsoever.  The landscape was a dull grey-black.  The red color of red clay would not appear for millions of years with the great oxidation event after plants appeared and started producing oxygen. 


The Commemoration Today – Ignatius of Antioch

In my writing and reviewing, I am developing a better “Rant-O-Meter.”  This enables me to review something already written before I hit “Send” and decide one final time whether such material goes out or not.  What hit the trash bucket today was a reflection on how my Primary Care Provider (healthcare) does not have the ability or willingness to accept and store medical images (mine) from other institutions.  It is ironic because in 1978 I was one of the three engineers who developed what would become the global standard for medical institutions storing and sharing patient images.  The ROM went a little high, so I decided to substitute the story of a Christian martyr we observe today.  The following is mostly taken from the website where you can pray the Daily Office and follow things like this.  Connected with this, my ordination to the priesthood is celebrated on the Feast of Polycarp, Feb 23.  In 2019, it will be 20 years.


Diminishing Resoures, Politicians and a Finite Earth

There is a paradox in the world of building highways.  A reasonable person might observe a congested four lane road and believe that doubling the size of the road to eight lanes would decrease traffic congestion.  But the reality is quite different and has been observed in cities around the world for fifty years.  If you build a bigger road from point A to point B, the traffic congestion will remain about the same as before or worse.


Schedule 80

Being co-owner of a winery, I get to do some things with technology that are not generally done by the average home-owning handy-person.  The latest project has involved installing a seven-ton (84,000 BTU) glycol chilling unit to cool wine tanks.  The plumbing used to circulate the coolant (propylene glycol) is a stronger form of PVC pipe like they use for your lawn sprinklers called “Schedule 80.”  The stronger stuff withstands the constant pressure and temperature changes in this application.  The cheap stuff at the big-box hardware store will never hold up to these conditions.


Perspective 2

In the Manhattan Project to produce the first atomic weapons, one of the projects my uncle supervised was “Monte Carlo calculations” of the properties of neutron shields and deflectors.  No they weren’t gambling.  Monte Carlo calculations are statistical methods of simulation.  When you have to lift a five-ton weapon with a propeller driven, 1940’s vintage aircraft, it is critical to know how much lead is needed.  Too much and it literally won’t fly.  Too little and the weapon won’t work.  Uncle Bob once described to me what it was like to have a building with 500 math and physics graduate students sitting at desks with calculators cranking out computations.  Today, an undergraduate could do those same computations (all of them that took 500 students several months) on an average laptop in a few minutes.

If you want a nice break from touristy San Francisco, take the ferry over to Angel Island.  If you climb around the military fortifications on the west end of the island, guarding the entrance to San Francisco Bay, you will find an historical plaque.  The plaque talks about how Congress in the early 1800s authorized $5M to build these guns and fortifications.  About three years after the guns were in place, the introduction of steel cladding on military ship’s wooden hulls rendered the entire gun emplacement obsolete.  Such is the nature of progress.  Today’s edge on the enemy (or the competition) becomes tomorrow’s scrap for the recycle bin.

Since the advent of transistors in the 1970s, electronic computing has been marching along to Gordon Moore’s Law (founder of Intel) that states memory capacity and CPU speed will double every 18 months.  People have predicted the demise of Moore’s Law several times in the last decade, but it continues to march on towards the fundamental limits of physics or until something radically different comes along.

Quantum computing is radically different.  Today’s quantum computers must be cooled to near absolute zero (-473 degrees Fahrenheit or really really cold) and they must be completely isolated from radio waves of all kinds.  These machines are the sci-fi of today but it appears that in the next few years to a decade ahead, practical quantum computers will be built that are millions or billions of times faster than any computer existing today.

Sadly, one major push for quantum computing comes from the financial industry that just wants a bigger calculator to predict market trends.  Another major use for these ultra-fast computers will be encrypting messages and decrypting secret data.  Those who rely upon conventional style computers for encryption of data will someday find that quantum computers will be able to break their “unbreakable” encryption.

Someday in the future, the recent FBI square off against Apple regarding the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone will seem as quaint and silly as an old rotary dial telephone is today.  It is always helpful to have some perspective on what we call “progress.”

Garbage by the Numbers

In 1971 while in college, I helped create a community-wide recycling center (paper, glass, metals) for Rolla Missouri. We used a donated, abandoned grocery store and we repurposed donated agricultural conveyors and other equipment. Trash compactors were rebuilt and cleaned to use for paper and aluminum can compaction. I have recycled my household trash ever since.

The average American generates 1,600 pounds of trash per year. This means that in my adult life to date, my household as a typical American household would have discarded 135 tons of trash or about 10 full garbage trucks. This volume would fill a two bedroom apartment floor to ceiling with compacted trash. I estimate that we have recycled more than half of our household trash for more than forty years.

Residential trash contains materials that could easily be recycled by those in the household. This amounts to roughly 60% of the trash volume. The amount that American residential households ACTUALLY recycle is 13%. By contrast, Europeans recycle 50-64% of their residential trash. We have a long way to go.

Here’s a more vivid image – If you took the 72 million tons of Municipal Solid Waste that goes to the landfill every year across our land, the garbage trucks to transport that waste would be lined up bumper to bumper from here to the moon. We could shrink that by 60% if we only cared enough about future generations to do so.

On top of the recyclable trash, about half of our domestic food waste can be composted. This saves energy, reduces investment in sewage infrastructure and provides useful gardening soil. Studies vary in their measurements but 20-28% of American households actually compost some or all of the 36 million pounds of food waste they send to the dump each year.

It takes 20 times the amount of energy to create new aluminum from its ore (bauxite) than it does to melt an aluminum can and recycle it. For glass the number is about 3. For plastic it is about 1.6. Here are some more tangible ways to look at it: The energy saved in recycling ONE aluminum can could run a 14 watt CFL light bulb for 20 hours or power your desktop computer for 3 hours. Five 2 liter recycled PET bottles (mainly soft drink bottles), produces enough fiberfill to make a ski jacket. The energy saved recycling one glass bottle would run a 14 watt CFL bulb for 28 hours. Broken glass in the environment takes 1 million years to break down.

Manufacturing one ton of office paper products with recycled paper saves between 3,000-4,000 kilowatt hours of energy or about the entire output of the Muskogee power plant for one hour. Grace uses a ton of paper products every two years (most of which gets recycled).

If we really care about the “unborn” or those who come after us, we might ponder these numbers in prayer and resolve to do what we can about it. The future is literally in your hands.


Sometimes the bad comes with the good

Nobel Prize (chemistry) winner, Linus Pauling, once hailed the [economically feasible] development of synthetic fertilizer in the early 20th century as the most important technology of the 20th  century.  That is not an overstatement.  Affordable, synthetic fertilizer made with fossil-fuel generated energy forestalled the inevitable collision of population and food resources.  Demographers and biologists predicted a food catastrophe sometime in the late 20th century that never happened.  The reason – fertilizer.  US crop yields outstripped farms in the rest of the world by a factor of 10 to 20!  But there is a cost that we are beginning to pay for this chemical blessing.

Let me admit that in late January and February when I am tired of a brown landscape, the sight of luxuriant green winter wheat makes my heart leap and I look forward to the colors of life in a resurrected spring time.  Unfortunately, much of that lovely green color comes from various forms of nitrate (NO3) applied to the fields.

In the past few years, peer-reviewed studies throughout the Mississippi basin have shown that excessive amounts of fertilizer have been applied to agricultural fields and much of that excess has been accumulating in the soil.  No big deal right?

When excessive nitrogen is applied, the plants do not take it up and use it.  So the nitrate dissolves in water and runs off the field.  Here’s what happens next.

  • Mississippi basin runoff all goes into the Gulf of Mexico which now has a “dead zone” of 6,500 square miles (the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined) located off the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi. No fish can live in the dead zone because the nitrate causes a bloom in algae which then consumes all the oxygen in the water.  The technical term for this is hypoxia.  The economic term for this is no fishing industry.
  • Des Moines, Iowa and other towns in the Mississippi basin have been forced to spend millions of dollars upgrading their water treatment plants to reduce nitrate levels in drinking water to safe standards. (Remember Flint Michigan and lead?  This is just as bad.)
  • The same Des Moines water company is suing three upstream counties for failing to address harmful surface-water nitrate levels that are more than twice the US federal drinking water standard.
  • Nitrates are being found below the “top plow zone” which is one to three feet below the surface. We now know they will persist there for decades while slowly leaching into agricultural runoff water.
  • People who live in the Mississippi basin and who depend upon shallow, improperly constructed or improperly located water wells often have nitrate levels exceeding safe levels. This leads to a potentially fatal blood disorder in infants under six months called methemoglobinemia or “blue-baby” syndrome; in which there is a reduction in the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood.  The symptoms can be confused with other diseases and except in extreme cases (where the baby is actually blue), the disorder can be difficult to diagnose.  Many state public health agencies have not added this disease to their “reportable disease” index so accurate incidence records are difficult to find now.  Nonetheless many counties have information about this disease on their websites.
  • This last item is a chemistry argument of mine, but NO3 is pretty high on the electromotive force table. That means it will outcompete other trace elements (in their anionic forms) in the uptake by plants.  Long term this displacement of other important elements for human life could lead to various types of malnutrition like scurvy in 18th century British sailors (which was solved by adding citrus fruit to their diet).

Linus Pauling was certainly right in his assessment of an important technology.  But that was in the 1960s. Today we need to be smarter about our use of technologies of all kinds.  That would include taking the long term perspective and not just blindly label things universally good before we truly understand all sides of the issue.