A Natural Man

Go in to any supermarket and you will find shelves and shelves of stuff displaying the tag “all-natural.” We think that “natural” things are better then “synthetic” or “artificial” or, heaven-forbid, “man-made” things.

That’s nonsense, of course. First of all, what exactly do we mean by “natural?” After all, petroleum is natural. It is organic, in the sense that it is made from once-living things. But no one would consider petroleum products like plastics to be natural. It’s a good thing we have all that plastic, though, because our natural cheeses and natural meats and natural vegetables have to be wrapped in the stuff so they can arrive in our refrigerators still fresh!

People claim that vaccination is not natural. The Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines are both made from RNA. What could be more natural than nucleic acids? All living things have nucleic acids in them. Stimulating an immune response by the body is the most natural of all healing methods. Herbalists claim their potions improve the body’s immune system. Bully for them. I’d like to see them immunize people against viral diseases. I’m sure echinacea works great against polio and smallpox.

There’s an outfit called Pandora—not the music service—that sells jewelry. They are a big, international company. They recently decided not to sell “natural” diamonds any more. They will replace them with synthetics, that is, lab-created stones.

This is a good thing. Diamond mining comes with a whole host of social and environmental problems. We’ve all heard about “blood diamonds.” Perhaps you saw the Leonardo di Caprio movie Blood Diamond. Let’s just say we all know that many, many poor and impoverished people are made poorer and more impoverished by our society’s insatiable need for the perfect stone.

It doesn’t have to be this way. A lab-created diamond is made from the same material as a “natural” diamond. They are just as beautiful. You cannot distinguish the synthetic stone from the “real” one. Of course, there will always be those who insist on the authentic, Earth-grown diamond, precisely because it is not made by the hands of men but by Mother Nature.

I would tell those folks to go out and ask Mother Nature for some broccoli. Seriously. You won’t find broccoli growing wild anywhere. Broccoli is a product of human patience and ingenuity. The source plant is natural, but the cultivated plant, the one we buy in the grocery store, is not. (It is still good for you, of course.)

I would like to see if anyone can find cheese in its natural setting. You can’t, of course. Cheese is manufactured by people. But it qualifies as one of those so-called natural foods. And don’t get me started on milk. Humans are the only species that consumes the milk of other species. Milk is the food for baby cows and baby goats and baby sheep and etc. But we suck that stuff down, either in its (mostly) pure form or as butter, cheese, yogurt, kefir, ice cream, you name it. Totally natural, man.

Essential oils are all the rage. To get essential oils, you have to process a plant. Typically they are crushed and the extracted liquids are then distilled to get the oil. Distillation is the same process we use to make booze. And gasoline. Totally natural, man.

Humans are products of nature so human-made products are natural, too. At this point the word natural is almost meaningless.

I say Lou Rawls knew what he was talking about:

(Music and Lyrics by Sandy Baron and Bobby Hebb)

Fill ‘er up!

I buy Chevron gas. Mostly out of habit and convenience. I don’t drive a lot so I don’t pay much attention to gas prices. I walked to work for 25 years so commute costs were pretty low! Mainly, I don’t drive that much, so my household budget doesn’t take much of a hit when it comes to fuel for the vehicles.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in how the whole thing works. Our world-wide energy system, that is. I was in high school in 1973 when the Arab Oil Embargo hit. Americans suddenly discovered their interdependence with the rest of the world. That stimulated domestic crude production and the new Mother Lode was Alaska. The pipeline was built from 1975-77 and I remember having classmates tell me their dads went north to find work. My dad was a pipefitter and had worked on crews in the local oil refineries. Humble Oil, soon to be Exxon, built the newest refinery in California literally in our back yard in Benicia in 1968, converting the old military property that abutted the town boundary. The Bay Area is a major oil and oil products hub, with California crude delivered by pipeline, out-of-state crude via rail, and international crude from oil tanker fleets. Much of what is refined into automotive and aviation gasoline for Northern California comes from the Chevron refinery in Richmond.

Here’s what’s happening at the Chevron terminal today (from vesselfinder.com):

The three orange dots are oil tankers. Polar Discovery flies a US flag and is part of a fleet of five owned by Polar Tankers, a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips.

The Polar Tanker fleet consists of five Endeavour Class tankers—the Polar Endeavour, Polar Resolution, Polar Discovery, Polar Adventure and Polar Enterprise—designed specifically for the twice-monthly 2,500 to 5,000-mile round-trip from Valdez, Alaska, to Washington, California, and Hawaii.

https://alaska.conocophillips.com/who-we-are/alaska-operations/polar-tankers-us-west-coast/

Polar Discovery left Valdez on the 24th of April. It is about 1800 nautical miles from there to San Francisco Bay and these big boats make about 14 knots. Polar Discovery and her sister ships were built between 2002 and 2006 and are double-hulled. The Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 was a time of reckoning for the crude oil shipping business in the U.S. and companies had to upgrade their fleets in response. Polar Discovery is 273 m long (896 feet) and 46 m (151 feet) in the beam and can carry close to a million barrels of crude oil.

The Chevron refinery can process about 250,000 barrels per day. All of their supply is ship borne. The Florida Voyager, moored alongside, is another U.S.-flagged tanker owned by Chevron. Its journey began in Singapore, one of the busiest ports in the world and another major oil hub. Although the island nation has no oil of its own, it has huge storage and refining complexes and all the oil majors do business there. They get most of their supply from the Middle East. The Axel Spirit, the other tanker, flies a Bahamian flag and arrived from Long Beach, that after a journey across the Pacific from Russia.

Here’s a picture of Polar Discovery:

Oil tankers are like red blood cells. And the shipping lanes are like blood vessels. To keep our society’s heart beating, the blood has to flow. Crude oil is the stuff that makes everything go. The next time you are pumping gas, think about Alaska, Singapore & the Middle East, and Russia. We are all tied together by our need for primary energy.

We all know the consequences for our over-reliance on fossil fuels: pollution, environmental degradation, and global warming. Not to mention the myriad of economic and geo-political issues created by the tensions between oil-haves and oil-have-nots. Since we will continue to need these natural resources even as we transition to newer, cleaner energy sources, it behooves us to use them wisely. In fact, we won’t be able to create a new energy and transportation infrastructure without using vast amounts of crude oil, natural gas, and coal in the interim, and some uses will never be replaced by alternatives. Expect nuclear power to make a comeback for those needs that current renewable resources can’t yet supply.

Filling our tanks costs us a lot—and not just in dollars.

A crowded sea

We landlubbers are used to crowds and queues. You have to wonder how sailors feel about such things. Here’s a look at the traffic jam in the San Francisco Bay. All the yellow dots are cargo ships waiting to unload at the Port of Oakland.

The image is from Vessel Finder which is a really cool website. Ocean-going ships use a technology called AIS or Automatic Identification System which uses transceivers to broadcast position, course, and speed. This is analogous to air traffic control but for marine applications. We civilians don’t have to worry about preventing collisions or managing maritime traffic but that stuff obviously needs to get done. The world’s oceans may be vast, but the sea lanes get congested at choke points. Harbors, bays, inlets, straits, and the like constrict the passage of ships and sometimes they get jammed up, just like commuters on the Bay Bridge.

When you see cargo ships moored in SF Bay that usually means they are waiting to off-load. The yellow dots on the map are almost all container ships. (The orange dot labeled MTM Tokyo is a oil tanker.) The Port of Oakland is experiencing unprecedented volumes at this time. It seems the pandemic has increased consumer spending, thus increasing shipping demand. At the same time, the Port can’t deploy as many people to handle the increased traffic, which is also a pandemic issue. So, we get a traffic jam.

The pandemic has heightened our awareness of supply chains and global inter-connectedness. (Is that a word?) Going forward, we need to improve the resiliency of these systems as domestic economies cannot “go it alone” any more. We are all one big “marketplace” these days.

Here’s what MSC Teresa, the yellow dot at the bottom of the picture, looks like:

Certainly would not want to bump into that fella if I’m out kayaking or pleasure sailing!

MSC Teresa was built in 2011 and flies under a Panamanian flag. It’s 366 meters (1201 feet) in length and its width (or “beam”) is 51 meters (167 feet). This particular voyage originated in Yantian, China, and had a stopover in Long Beach before steaming north. The Port of Oakland is the fifth-busiest in the nation behind Los Angeles, Long Beach, New York-New Jersey, and Savannah.

New books!

We read a lot. We need to re-stock the book larder regularly. Good thing there is Zeising Books. The Zeisings—Cindy & Mark—live in Shingletown, California, an alpine hamlet in Shasta County. They sell books out of their home. You can order by snail mail, or call them on the phone, or send them an email, or visit their website. They like the kind of books we like, and they will get books for you that they don’t have. We buy lots of books from them. You should, too.

Here’s the latest shipment:

https://www.ziesings.com/

Starting from the top is the Black Gat line at Stark House Press, an independent publisher in Eureka, California. They specialize in genre reprints: mysteries, westerns, fantasy/horror, that sort of thing. Cut Me In, by New York author Jack Karney, is from a 1959 Pyramid paperback. American post-WWII crime fiction from the heyday of the paperback, with labels like Fawcett Gold Medal, Dell First Edition, Avon, Monarch, Signet, and Pocket Books, might be my favorite literature.

Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden is contemporary SF, she is a new author for us. I’m always looking for good, futuristic stuff.

Speaking of good, futuristic stuff, you can’t go wrong with William Gibson. The Peripheral is from 2014 and is set in the same world as 2020’s The Agency. We’ve read most everything of his since Neuromancer in 1984 and somehow we missed this one!

Chris Panatier is also a new novelist for us and The Phlebotomist is his debut. It is published by Angry Robot Books.

Stark House Press puts together doubles and this one features contemporary mystery writer Wilson Toney’s Not Worth That Much and Money is the Drug of Choice.

One of the best writers in any genre is Walter Mosley, who came to fame with the Easy Rawlins series that started with 1990’s Devil in a Blue Dress. Denzel Washington played Easy in the movie version of that novel. He has SF and “mainstream” novels along with his mysteries and crime fiction. Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore is from 2014.

John Shirley has always been (like Mosley) one of our very favorite writers. Stormland is brand new from Blackstone Press and is set in a near-future climate dystopia.

On the bottom is a fancy art book by one of those true originals, Ralph Steadman. He became famous for illustrating Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but that is but a small part of his work. I have a book called Still Life With Bottle, written and illustrated by Steadman, that’s about Scotch whisky!

So, what’s on YOUR bookshelf?

Double-dosed!

I would have signed up to participate in the original vaccine trials if I had know how to do so. Not that they would have picked me, but I was ready to say “yes” if given the chance. I was willing to be jabbed as soon as one of those biotech outfits starting jabbing.

My parents had classmates who got polio. Now you say “polio” and people wonder what you are talking about! That’s proof that vaccination worked. When you get rid of a disease, people forget about it. Unfortunately they also forget about the remarkable scientific and technical accomplishments that led to eliminating that disease threat.

My mom had whooping cough (pertussis) as a child and almost died. This bacterial disease is widespread but there is a vaccine, the so-called DTap vaccine, which includes diptheria and tetanus. There were 9,000 cases of pertussis in California in 2010, with many hospitalizations and several infant deaths. All of those were preventable with a simple, safe, cheap, and easily-accessible vaccine.

Infant mortality was a fact of life for the human race until very recently. In modern countries the likelihood a child will live to be an adult is very high. That was not the case not that long ago and it is still a problem in developing countries. Every family had children who died of diseases that are now mostly eliminated. Americans don’t remember their own past. Anyone who takes the time to trace their ancestry will inevitably discover that large families were the norm as it was expected that one or more children would get sick and die before adulthood.

Hunger and malnutrition were commonplace, too. Now our biggest issue in the States is too much food. And too much food of dubious nutritional value. We can go to the store and be very picky about which meat we will eat, or even if we’ll eat meat at all. We can demand “organic” produce and cast a dismissive eye on things that don’t meet our stringent personal criteria. Not that long ago people were happy just to get enough food. In some places on the planet people wait in lines for basic stuff like bread.

When you grow up in a wealthy country you forget how lucky you are. The abundance seems limitless. In fact, to survive and thrive you have to be disciplined and not over-indulge. It is so easy to eat too much in this day and age. We throw away enough food to feed entire nations!

I was very fortunate to get the COVID vaccine a little ahead of schedule. I’m only 61 but I have had, as you can see, both of my shots. The creation and distribution of the coronavirus vaccines is a triumph of modern science and medicine. It is something worth highlighting and celebrating. The vaccines are a fantastic accomplishment and are crucial to restoring health and prosperity in the midst of this pandemic. I urge you to go out and get yours as soon as possible.

The Moderna vaccine, like the Pfizer, is particularly exciting. The technology uses mRNA, or messenger RNA, and generates an immune response without using an infectious agent. The mRNA vaccines encode for the “spike” protein that the coronavirus uses to attach to cells. When you get the vaccine, you produce antibodies to that protein. If you get a COVID infection, your body now has an immunological “memory” and can fight off the infection. Marvelous stuff. Imagine using this technology to customize therapies against other diseases. With cancers, one typically has to have surgery or get broad-based drug treatments that kill the tumors. These chemicals are hard on your healthy cells. An mRNA vaccine could be designed to be more specific, to target particular cancer cells. That would be an enormous therapeutic improvement.

The way we advance this medical knowledge is by being guinea pigs. People have to volunteer to participate in studies. Once the safety and efficacy of the new treatment is established, it can become part of the standard repertoire of medical practice. The pandemic increased the urgency for a vaccine, and all the vaccines in use are actually on an emergency authorization. The clinical trials weren’t any different, but the government approval process was accelerated. That’s actually proof that the safety systems work. Big Pharma may be experimenting on us, but it’s got a safe, well-designed product. They aren’t experimenting with the safety aspect as that’s been established. No, we are the guinea pigs for the effectiveness part. No one knows for sure how long the immunizations will last or whether the mutations to the virus will render them obsolete. Maybe we’ll have to get an annual shot, like with the flu. Tetanus is one of those things you have to get re-inoculated for—you need a booster every ten years.

Like I said I’m happy to do my part. I signed up for the V-safe follow-up where the CDC collects information on side effects. It’s all done via my phone. The second dose of the Moderna can have some side effects and they would like to get that data. No problem: you stick me and I’ll tell you how it went. I figure side effects are a small price to pay for some significant protection against a nasty new respiratory disease. A nasty new global respiratory disease.

Stay safe out there. And get your shot.

Please.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Mining the sea floor sounds like science fiction but it isn’t really that far-fetched. The folks at DeepGreen think the commercial opportunity is right around the corner. Manganese nodules are abundant on the enormous abyssal plains of the world’s oceans. Besides manganese, these nodules contain high concentrations of other key materials like cobalt and nickel making them potentially attractive future sources.

This has stirred some folks up, much like the stirred-up sediments such mining will undoubtedly create. The sea floor miners believe they can harvest the materials with less environmental impact than terrestrial mining. A whole bunch of other folks don’t think so.

Everything that can’t be farmed has to be mined. The greening of America’s infrastructure will require huge amounts of the above-mentioned elements, in addition to even more copper than we now consume, as well as increasing quantities of the lanthanides (rare-earth elements), not to mention boring old stuff like zinc and aluminum and ad nauseum.

This means great demand will be put on terrestrial miners to dig this stuff up. And no one likes the impacts that mines and mining make on the landscape. Do you want a new copper mine in Arizona? Some folks do, some folks don’t. The folks that do say “we gotta have this stuff” and they are right. The folks that don’t say “you’ll make a bloody fookin’ mess and walk away rich” and by golly they are right, too.

I don’t think sea floor mining is practical in the short-term. But I say “good luck” anyway because we will certainly need continuous sources of these crucial minerals. And I think mines are good. We need them. But we need them to behave responsibly. It is too bad “the marketplace” can’t create the environmental stewardship and resource conservation ethic necessary to do things the right way. It seems the government, and public political pressure, as well as shareholder activism, will be the drivers of those things. At some point the corporate world, as dependent as it is on big banks and investment funds for fresh capital, might have to answer to those funding sources about their carbon footprint and other measures of good management. I hope so.

Meanwhile, the great unexploited resource of the world remains our trash heaps. E-waste, the detritus of the computer age, is on the scale of 50 million metric tons annually. This is expected to grow to 75 million metric tons in 2030. We are lousy at recycling, despite decades of encouragement and opportunity, and single-use plastics still dominate our packaging industry. If we mined our landfills—better yet we mined our trash bins—we could recover many important materials.

We live in a consumer world, and we have to buy products to keep our economy afloat. But we could buy better, longer lasting products that can be repaired and/or recycled. We could expect our manufacturers to build things that can be re-used, or re-claimed in order to be re-imagined. When we pull stuff out of the ground like coal or crude oil or copper ore or anything we have to “use” we have to see it as the precious commodity it is. How can we make the very most of this amazing and remarkable substance? How can we do it so we all can benefit? How can we use human ingenuity to sustain our civilization and the earth it treads upon?

I don’t think those questions are that hard. We’ll have to come up with some answers. Or we might start to see more stuff like this:

source: https://worldoceanreview.com/en/wor-3/mineral-resources/manganese-nodules/

Spring

I’m not ready for this. I still expect it to be winter. In fact, we will still—as you can see above—have freezing temperatures in our future. But spring has sprung and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

My left elbow has been barking at me for weeks now and I suspect it is tendinitis. The dreaded “tennis elbow” can strike anyone, even those of us who don’t play racket sports. It’s robbed me of my desire to ski and thus my raison d’être for loving the winter months. Routine tasks like picking up a glass of water with my left hand are currently a challenge. And not much can be done for lateral epicondylitis except resting and waiting.

But spring has sprung and that means weed pulling, weed whacking, pruning, prepping, composting, irrigating and all the other landscape and garden tasks that emerge with the warmer weather and longer days. I’ll need both arms for those things and thus I’m avoiding strenuous athletic endeavors like alpine skiing.

When we go for our daily walks around the neighborhood, which we do rain or shine, we often encounter our neighbors. They almost always want to comment on the weather, especially when the days are warm and sunny.

“Lovely weather we are having, isn’t it?”

“Don’t you just love these gorgeous days?”

“Oh, I’m so happy the sun is shining!”

I bite my tongue and smile and nod. I want to scream “NOOOOOOOO!” I want to shout “I WANT SNOW AND STORMS AND COLD AND WET AND RAIN!!!”

No one wants to hear that. Everyone expects you to happily agree with them that sunshine and blue skies are what we all want and what we all enjoy.

Don’t get me wrong. I like nice days, too. But we have to have winter. We have to have snow and rain and all that because the dry season is coming and we won’t get any more snow and rain for six months. And we all know that California is drought-prone and vulnerable to severe wildfires. So I don’t want it to stop raining and snowing until all our reservoirs are full to the brim and all our snow stations are reporting record levels.

Here’s the state of our major reservoirs:

That’s just a snip. As you can see I clipped off the Southern California portion, but I think the rest speaks for itself. Right now we are a little short of where we ought to be.

Here’s a look at the snowpack:

Once again you can see that we are a little short of where we’d all like to be. The bottom line is that WE NEED MORE RAIN AND SNOW! (These charts are from the California Department of Water Resources.)

Here’s some disturbing news from the DWR director:

“We are now facing the reality that it will be a second dry year for California and that is having a significant impact on our water supply,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth. “The Department of Water Resources is working with our federal and state partners to plan for the impacts of limited water supplies this summer for agriculture as well as urban and rural water users. We encourage everyone to look for ways to use water efficiently in their everyday lives.”

https://water.ca.gov/News/News-Releases/2021/March-21/SWP-Allocation-Update-March-23

I think we all knew the drought conditions we experienced last year were continuing through this year. Despite the many storms we’ve experienced this winter the accumulation did not occur. We’ve had several stretches of warm, sunny weather in between the storms and that melted the snowpack and increased evaporation from surface water sources.

I note that today is Passover and tomorrow is Palm Sunday. Next Sunday is Easter. People are celebrating the arrival of spring. One of my neighbors already has her house decked out with balloons and Easter eggs. I don’t want to be that grumpy old man who complains, but goddamnit, I don’t want to hear any more about “nice” days ahead! I want more snow and rain and “foul” weather.

But I probably won’t get it. So I think we should all prepare ourselves for another long, hot dry season.

Happy spring!

Hype and Hope

Mars has been in the news lately because of NASA’s stunning success with Perseverance but it seems like we might be missing the point of the entire enterprise. For example, why go to Mars at all? There are plenty of Earth-bound problems to solve, so why spend the enormous intellectual and economic capital required to explore space?

In 1969, when Eagle landed on the moon, the technological achievement played second fiddle to the political triumph. This was the Cold War after all, and beating the Soviets at something was the first priority. No one who watched the Olympics in those days, for example, could avoid the commies-vs.-capitalists or Free World-vs.-Iron Curtain vibe in every event.

Landing on the moon turned out to be a sensational international coup for Americans as the entire world tuned in to Armstrong’s first steps. People actually felt a sense of universal brotherhood in that moment. It was as if anything was possible, and that humanity, because of technology, had a brighter future. What people forget about that time is how quickly everyone forgot about the moon landings! By the time of Apollo XVII (the sixth and final successful moon mission) in 1972 only a fraction of the original audience was tuning in. NASA, unfortunately, made the missions seem routine. They were anything but routine, but the viewing public was bored and moved on to other things. Not to mention that Congress was getting increasingly leery of NASA’s growing budget and was eager to trim the fat from the program.

It turns out the men walking on the moon, as amazing as that was, looks in hindsight more like a stunt than anything. Neil Armstrong was my childhood hero and I don’t mean to diminish his courage and skill nor the tremendous effort thousands of people made to make his journey possible. But all that drama up there in space was more about human sentiment and social aspirations than it was about science and engineering. After all it wasn’t until the final moon flight that NASA decided to add a geologist to the crew! The science, and its applications to human needs, was secondary to the dream, to the yearnings of the people. We are a culture that venerates explorers, and spaceflight takes us to that elusive “final frontier” that the TV-show Star Trek articulated so memorably.

Even after all the challenges of the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, and the continuous reminding that it is very difficult for humans to live and work in space, NASA still says stuff like this:

[Mars] could someday be a destination for survival of humankind.

Uh, no. If by “someday” they mean many decades in the future, then maybe. But anytime soon? Don’t be silly.

Mars is not, by any reasonable definition, habitable. Humans cannot live there. It is too far from the Sun and so it isn’t warm enough. In fact it gets really cold there. The atmosphere is too thin for a greenhouse effect, so Mars does not trap heat and there are very large temperature swings. The atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, so you’d have to wear breathing apparatus, and the atmospheric pressure is minuscule, so you’d have to wear a pressure suit. That would be offset a bit by the much lower gravity, but that has its own deleterious effect on the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems. There are regular, planet-wide dust storms. There is no magnetosphere so you’d be constantly bombarded by cosmic rays and any human habitation would require so much shielding that you’d have to live underground. There’s not much in the way of soil, and what soil is there is toxic. Water is scarcer there than any of the most arid places on our home planet.

Now I’m all for interplanetary dreaming. I love science fiction. And I also think that the stuff we will learn about ourselves and our terrestrial abode will more than pay for the costs of these space journeys. I’m all for going into space. But I think putting humans on Mars is mostly a bad idea. We can do so much really good work with robots and remote probes and rovers and such. We, the two-legged we, don’t have to be there. The logistical challenges of sending humans to Mars would only work if they were one-way trips. Perhaps in the 22nd century or something we’ll be able to terra-form the planet and make a viable colony, but I’m not holding my breath. We are stuck here on the third rock for the foreseeable future.

Then there’s this guy:

Mars is one of Earth’s closest habitable neighbors.

Elon Musk is a hell of a salesman. And he’s obviously a great businessman—he has the billions to prove it. But he doesn’t know shit about space. We don’t have any “habitable neighbors!” And 140 million miles away is not exactly close. For comparison, the moon is about a quarter of a million miles away and that trip took the world’s biggest-ever rocket.

Studying Mars will enlarge our understanding of our own origins, and of our home the Earth and its many systems. The scientific and engineering achievements will lead to many advances for our civilization. But we aren’t leaving home just yet.

It’s a small world, after all

Humans like to think big. Skyscrapers, bridges, interstate highways, that sort of thing. Lake Powell has about 1900 miles of shoreline. The Bingham Canyon open-pit copper mine is 2-1/2 miles wide and covers almost 2000 acres. The Great Wall of China stretches for 13,000 miles.

But the world is small, really. The coronavirus responsible for COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, is big for a virus but still really small. A typical virion is about 100 nanometers across. Nano– means 10-9 so that’s 0.0000001 meters in length. You’d need 10 million of them laid end-to-end to get a meter’s worth. One virion has a mass of about one femtogram. The prefix femto– means 10-15 or 0.000000000000001 grams. It would take a quadrillion coronaviruses to get a gram!

Micro-organisms rule your world. You harbor a bacterial colony in your gut. Without them you can’t digest food, so you’d die. Plants need nitrogen to live. They have bacteria on their roots that extract nitrogen from the air and convert it to a usable form. Without those helpers living there, the plants would die.

Microbes are the oldest and most diverse of all life forms. When microbes started to photosynthesize and produce oxygen the planet eventually became inhabitable for species like us. Microbes are found in every possible habitat. No ecological process is possible without them.

Now a virus is not like a bacteria or other microbe. It doesn’t really meet the textbook definition of “alive” although it certainly acts like a living thing once it gets the chance. A bacterium is huge by comparison, about 10 times bigger or 1000 nanometers across. But on a human scale that is still tiny.

I got to thinking about very small things because I got my first dose of the Moderna vaccine. The dose is 100 micrograms (10-6) or 0.000001 grams. With two shots you get 200 micrograms of the mRNA vaccine.

A COVID infection is estimated to be between 109 and 1011 virions per person. That’s a mass of between 1 to 100 micrograms. So, if you want to fight a war on a very small front you need very small soldiers but you still want to have more than the other guy!

The number of coronavirus cases in the world is about 115 million. That means all the SARS-CoV-2 in the world has, roughly, a mass* of no more than a dozen kilograms. That’s it. Somewhere around 25 pounds!

We humans spend our days in the macro-world. We drive cars and watch TV and play golf and all of those things we can see and touch and feel. But the REAL world is the micro-world, and especially the nano-, pico-, and femto-worlds. An atom is on the order of 100 picometers (pico- is 10-12) in size, and in the end, all we are is collections of atoms.

So, like I said, it’s a small world, after all.

*1 microgram times 115 million (1 E-6)(115 E6) is 115 grams (0.115 kg) and 100 micrograms times 115 million (100 E-6)(115 E6) is 11,500 grams (11.5 kg).

Perseverance!

Humans aren’t going to Mars anytime soon. There’s no reason to. Robots are much better suited to such endeavors.

NASA put another rover on the Martian surface today. It was a superb display of engineering and technical prowess. It’s also proof that complex, interdisciplinary problems can be solved. Obviously something like climate change is much bigger than this as the social, political, ecological, and economic constraints are greater. Not to mention more fluid and unpredictable. But that doesn’t negate the point—when people set their minds to solve something they can do great things.

Humans can do OK in earth orbit. They can live reasonably well in a low-flying spacecraft. They can stay in shape for several months to a year in the free-fall (“microgravity” in NASA-speak) environment. Individuals have to be selected carefully for such missions. The technical skills alone are daunting, not to mention the close-quarters living and separation from loved ones. Kind of like submariners, although they can always surface and get some fresh air. Not a choice for the astronauts and cosmonauts!

Supply of such vessels is a big task. Rockets can send about 50 to 100 tonnes of material per launch into a low-earth orbit. The Saturn V of Apollo days is still the king with a 140 tonne payload. A tonne is 2200 pounds (1000 kg), so 50 tonnes is 110,000 pounds and 100 tonnes is 220,000 pounds. SpaceX is supposedly developing a 150 tonne lifter this year.

How much is that? A Ford F-150 pickup weighs between 4000-5000 pounds so let’s call it 2 tonnes. So a 100-tonne lifter could bring 50 Ford pickups to the space station! That would be a big help, eh?

100 tonnes of water, good old H2O, is 100,000 Liters. That’s 50,000 2-L PET bottles! If you could gather that 100,000 L of water into a cube, it would be about 15 feet on a side. That much water takes one whole rocket launch.

You can imagine all the things the occupants of a space station need to survive, not to mention keeping the thing in working order and being able to do the work you are up there to do. 100 tonnes is really not that much stuff. The average American, by the way, creates about four pounds of trash, per day.

So you see that robots are far better for space exploration. I think there is a good chance that Perseverance or some other remote probe of Mars will find living things. I think it will happen in the next few years. There won’t be any little green men or Martian monsters (so disappointing!) but there will be something. It will not be “intelligent” in the sense we mean. And we mean that to say “like us.”

No, it will be more like something we find growing in acid mine drainage. Or perhaps at deep-sea hydrothermal vents. There are lots of extremophiles on earth, creatures like tardigrades that can survive and even thrive in extreme environments. You must check out methane ice worms!

Something is alive on Mars. Dormant, perhaps. Well hidden, to be sure. But I’m convinced we will have our “close encounter,” it will just be done remotely with a 20-minute time delay. That’s a good thing. If one of us was up there, fretting over our oxygen supply or return-launch window or any of the multitude of things worth fretting about, we might miss it. The instruments on the rover have a much better chance of getting the job done.

Good luck to ’em.