Trillions

How many different types of living things are there in the world?

I don’t know, but two fellows at Indiana University took a stab at this question. They focused on microbial life, which is smart, because there is more of that than any other kind of life.

Plants are the dominant life form on earth if you measure by mass. The amount of carbon stored in plants is estimated at 450 Gt. Bacteria weigh in at about 70 Gt. Those units are giga-tonnes. The giga- prefix means one billion or 10^9. So a Gt is over two trillion pounds!

A trillion is not an easy number. It’s a lot of zeroes:

1 000 000 000 000

Or if you prefer commas:

1,000,000,000,000

An easy way to think of one trillion is “a million times a million.”

I suspect that one million is about as big of a number that most people can visualize. There are about a million seconds in twelve days, for example (12 x 24 x 60 x 60 = 1 036 800).

One million times one thousand will get you a billion. So 12 000 days (~32 years) is about a billion seconds.

One billion times one thousand will get you a trillion. So 12 000 000 days (~32 000 years) is about a trillion seconds.

The latest infrastructure bill from Congress and the President comes to about one trillion dollars!

Back to the first question: how many different kinds of living things are out there in the world?

Biologists Kenneth J. Locey and Jay T. Lennon suggest in their study (“Scaling laws predict global microbial diversity” in PNAS vol. 113 no. 21) that the earth is home to one trillion species of microbes. This does not include insects or mammals or other such creatures. Just micro-organisms.

Now that’s not one trillion total microbes, but rather one trillion different kinds of microbes. As far as the total number of microbes on the planet, that’s a really, really big number. Case in point: the number of bacterial cells in your gut biome is at least as large as the total number of cells in your body.

According to IC Insights, the number of semiconductor devices that will be shipped to users in 2021 exceeds one trillion. This milestone was also achieved in 2018 and 2019, and even in the midst of the pandemic, 975 billion were shipped in 2020. Seems like one trillion is the new benchmark. Here’s a graph:

From roughly 33 billion in 1978 to 1.1 trillion in 44 years is about five doublings. That is, the number doubled every eight years or so. That’s about 9% annual growth! Wouldn’t you like to earn 9% every year?

There are not one trillion different kinds of semiconductor devices of course, but there are certainly many hundreds and perhaps many thousands of them, and that number keeps growing. There are about 9 500 different kinds of mobile phones, for example. If you add in all the bits and pieces that make up these devices the number of different artifacts humans have created becomes enormous. Just imagine all the different kinds of fasteners—screws, nails, nuts, bolts, rivets, etc.—and the staggering variety of objects they are needed for. My head is going to explode. I’m still trying to get a handle on “trillions.”

At some point the manufactured world will exceed the natural world in both number and variety of things. Are you ready for that?

“OK, well, maybe . . .”

The precursor to the laser was the maser. A maser is a laser that uses microwaves. Or you could say a laser is a maser that uses visible light. Either way, the maser came first.

The words are acronyms: Microwave (or Light) Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

A fellow named Charles Townes had an idea for a maser one day back in 1951 and sketched it out to his colleague Arthur Schawlow. Both men were experimental physicists and three years later they produced a working maser.

But that’s not the story. The story is that when Townes went to his friend with the idea Schawlow said:

OK, well, maybe . . .”

It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s the perfect balance of enthusiasm and skepticism. By enthusiasm I mean the openness to something new. By skepticism I mean the lack of credulity.

Both are essential. You have to be receptive or you’ll miss out. But you also have to be critical. That way you won’t get fooled. Experimental physicists are more like engineers. They like to keep their feet on the ground. Two renowned theoretical physicists, Neils Bohr and I.I. Rabi, both told Townes his idea wouldn’t work. You never tell an engineer that something won’t work. These people spend their lives making things work!

Neils Bohr was one of the few physicists in the world that could go toe-to-toe with Albert Einstein. Their debates about quantum mechanics are famous in the scientific world. The theory of quantum mechanics is about 100 years old and one of the most significant results of that theory is, you guessed it, the laser.

Einstein’s paper “On the Quantum Theory of Radiation” introduced the concept of stimulated emission which is the basis of lasers. That was in 1917. In a weird twist, Einstein spent much of his professional life opposed to quantum mechanics, a field he helped create, and one in which Bohr holds an esteemed place. The Einstein-Bohr debates were mostly philosophical as quantum mechanics raises many interesting questions about reality and our attempts to perceive it.

Engineers and experimental physicists are feet-on-the-ground types, like I said, and don’t have much use for philosophy. Inventors always believe a solution is just around the corner, and that means they can’t be too particular about theories. They have to be flexible, and know that their working assumptions are just that. Philosophers and theoreticians spend a lot of time building their intellectual constructs and are quite invested in them. They can’t pull them apart so easily.

I don’t mean to disparage those with their heads in the clouds. There’s no laser without Einstein’s paper and Bohr’s theories. And those were built on theories from others like Max Planck and James Clerk Maxwell. Inventions don’t happen in a vacuum. There are a lot of people thinking and working at the same time. We love the idea of the lone genius but it is mostly a myth.

In fact, we are all inventors. We invent our own reality every day. And reality presents us with a lot of problems. That means we need solutions. And what do inventors say when considering solutions?

“OK, well, maybe . . .”

PM 2.5

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic gave us the Isolation Apocalypse. Wildfires are giving us the Inhalation Apocalypse. Here’s the report this morning from Purple Air:

The numbers are PM2.5, or particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. The measurement is in micrograms per cubic meter of air. A cubic meter is about 35 cubic feet or 264 gallons. You can fit about two cubic meters of air into the bed of a compact pickup truck. A microgram is really small, 0.000001 gram. A dollar bill weighs about one gram which is one million micrograms.

It’s hard to imagine that 200 micrograms of tiny stuff, dispersed into a big ball of air, could be hazardous to your health. A human hair is about 70 micrometers across, so we are talking about things too small to see with the naked eye. We get a lot of haze around here and that is often the result of suspended fine particles like these. You can’t see them but you know they are there because, off in the distance, visibility is reduced. You are looking at the accumulation of refracted, reflected, and diffracted sunlight. Here in wildfire country we also get large particles—ash and smoke—that you can see just fine!

Fine particulates enter your lungs and get to your bloodstream. It often does not matter what the source is, or what the particles are made of. You don’t want to get that stuff in your body. Wildfires may be organic and all-natural, but you still don’t want to breathe in the by-products. After all, we burn wood in our homes but we have chimneys! If wood smoke was good for you we’d just let it fill the house. And on camping trips everyone stands around the fire pit but if the breeze pushes the smoke in your face you move to a new spot.

So make no mistake particulate pollution from wildfires is a serious health issue. I’m in good health but I’m also 61 so I’m in those risk groups they always talk about. I don’t have heart disease or anything, thank goodness, but I still stay indoors when the numbers are bad. I’ve missed out on walking and bicycle riding, two things I count on to stay healthy, but the trade-off isn’t worth it. Breathing fouled air isn’t good. The fitness gain from outdoor activity is negated by the exposure to pollutants. Worse, exertion means more breathing, which means more bad air in the body. So it’s not a break-even, it’s a loss.

For the PM2.5 air quality measurement 0-50 is considered satisfactory, 51-100 is moderate, 101-150 is unhealthy for sensitive groups, and 151-200 is unhealthy for all. Anything over 201 is obviously very unhealthy and by the time you get to 301 the air is hazardous to breathe.

You can keep track of air quality in several places. The EPA has AirNow.gov and I already mentioned Purple Air, which I use all the time. Windy.com is another useful website for keeping tabs on the air quality.

Let’s hope for some fresh air soon.

The Big Con

I’ve always been fascinated by con artists. These folks flourish in a free market economy. In capitalism everything is for sale because everything is a commodity. You can sell your soul. You can buy love. You can sell your house. You can buy crypto-currency, and so on.

Con artists sell you back to yourself. They play on your vanity, your sense of importance. They exploit your fear of missing out. They encourage you to open your wallet so that you can fulfill your wishes and buy your dreams.

We’ve all heard P.T. Barnum’s “there’s a sucker born every minute.” And we’ve all heard some version of caveat emptor (buyer beware) from our elders.

But we still get suckered. Bernie Madoff showed the world that you can bilk famous, highly accomplished celebrity-type people, and do it for years before they’ll catch on. It was just too cool to be one of his special clients and it was just too easy to believe in his impossible investment returns. After all, when you are a famous, highly accomplished celebrity you won’t get suckered by a common huckster. Madoff was a huckster, that’s for sure, and good thing he seems to have a been an uncommon one.

L. Ron Hubbard created a religion for rich people and other famous, highly accomplished celebrities. It was a stroke of genius to target people with lots of money. I’ve thrown money at nonsense, but I don’t have the means to do it on the scale the Scientologists work on. Rich people do and it doesn’t hurt them—financially, that is—to swallow that nonsense.

Recently we’ve had the Power Poop Couple. Zachary Schulz Apte and Jessica Sunshine Richman created uBiome, which was breathlessly promoted on a TED talk (among other places), and it turned out to be a fraud. These two phonies are now fugitives and face federal fraud and money laundering charges. The scary part of this disaster was how easily they conned their way to fame and fortune. People were falling over themselves to give them money and praise them for their supposedly revolutionary approach to health care.

It was all jive. But they knew the con artists greatest trick which is “tell people what they want to hear.”

And then there’s Elon Musk. He literally robs Peter to pay Paul, raiding one company to pay off the debts of another. He talks constantly and relentlessly assures his fanbase that the next big breakthrough is just around the corner and it will be even better than the last one. I’m still waiting for the first one! Like a Musk company that makes a profit, for example. Or pays a dividend. Or does not depend on government contracts, handouts, subsidies, or tax incentives.

I’ll give Musk his due. He gets more free money than anyone. Venture capital flows into his gaping corporate maws. When he spends it he asks for more and more flows in. It’s the greatest of all capitalist acts: selling nothing!

I suppose he’s selling dreams. Dreams of hyperloops and Martian colonies and neural links or whatever. Those dreams DON’T COST ANYTHING. They are already FREE! You don’t need Elon to dream, and if you do you might think about watching less TV or eating fewer potato chips or something because your mind has been poisoned.

America is the home of the con artist. Upward mobility and dreams of riches are essential to the American character. We all believe we will find our own land of milk and honey. And those of us who don’t will have plenty of schemes to choose from. The con artist will come into our lives with his (or her) charm and effortless grace and convince us that we are SO IMPORTANT we have to open our wallets to them.

And then they will take us for a ride. And if you don’t want to go on that ride, watch out for the bilkers, fleecers, and grifters of the world. Some are low-lifes. Some are rich and glamorous. But they are easy to spot. Here’s the rule: if it is too good to be true, then it (most likely) isn’t true. Anything that promises the moon (like Musk) is lying. All you get out of that is an airless rock!

It would be great if some of the bullshit was actually true, but that just doesn’t happen. Real life has a way of barging in and writing all the rules. That sucks, I know, but it’s the reality we inhabit so we might as well get used to it. And real life is in fact much better than any fantasy these hustlers and tricksters can try to sell us. And if it isn’t, you need a new life, not a new sales pitch.

Out of the Past

Writer, film scholar, and TCM host Eddie Muller has a new book out. It’s really an old book but in a new edition. It’s beautiful. Get yours now from Larry Edmunds Bookshop!

I have the 1998 paperback edition which I devoured years ago. I have consulted it dozens of times since then. It’s my go-to reference for all things film noir.

Dark City is the hidden history of modern America. Everything in it is true, even if we don’t want to hear it. Sometimes you watch movies from the bygone Hollywood eras and they seem hopelessly dated. Post-WWII American television is particularly un-watchable for that very reason. But so many of the “crime pictures” from the 1940s and 1950s still resonate. Lumped by French critics into a bin called film noir these stories tackled anger, alienation, desperation, passion, jealousy, greed, corruption and almost every other venal and mortal sin you can conjure up.

What makes them so appealing? Their refreshing honesty about human nature, certainly. Mostly melodramas, they are enlivened by a brisk pace, terse writing, and a distinct visual style. Fedoras and spats never looked so good! The women aren’t just victims or femmes fatale. They get much better roles than in the more tepid mainstream fare at the time. They get to run, hide, shoot, give orders, take a punch, and run a racket, just like the men, all the while looking glamorous. In today’s media-saturated world, modern actresses can never be as glamorous as the stars from that time. If you want a picture of Angelina Jolie or Scarlett Johansson in a ratty t-shirt and no makeup you can find it. It doesn’t take away their beauty—it just shatters the illusion.

We met Eddie Muller at NoirCon in Philadelphia in 2014. That was just after the Giants won the World Series. He’s a San Francisco native and a huge baseball fan so we had plenty to talk about besides movies!

Get a copy of Dark City and re-learn your American history, and have a rollicking fun time while doing it.

Billionaire Boys

Jeff Bezos finally launched his giant penis-ship and got to take a ride into space. Richard Branson beat him to it by a week, but the one-upmanship is in full force. Branson’s craft peaked out at about 50 miles (80 km) above the earth’s surface (mean sea level). In the US of A that’s the dividing line between space and not-space. If you go above 50 miles, you’re an astronaut. In the rest of the world they use the so-called Kármán Line which is about 62 miles up (100 km). Bezos made sure his capsule crossed the 100-km boundary. Twenty kilometers isn’t much, about twelve miles as you can see, but it is a bone of contention. You have to figure these guys need something to argue about. When you have enough money to build your own rocketships there can’t be many things left you haven’t done or paid someone to do for you.

I suspect Elon will get in on the act soon and ride a rocket-powered Tesla Model S into space and do a couple of laps around the earth for good measure.

I was seduced by space flight when I was a boy. I was nine-and-a-half when Neil and Buzz walked on the moon and have been a science nerd ever since. I think space exploration is important. I want NASA to operate rovers on Mars and send satellites to Saturn and beyond. There’s so much to learn about our distant neighboring worlds, and so much they can teach us about our own origins.

Sending people into space is an entirely different thing. Unmanned spaceflight is all about the science. Crewed spaceflight is all about the crew—how to keep them alive and functioning at a high level. It’s an enormous barrier to actual exploration. There’s no way human crews could possibly do anything close to what the rovers can do on Mars. It takes too much energy, equipment, and time just to keep the people alive, especially if you expect to get them back home in one piece.

Space exploration is best left to robots. The distances are too great and the environment too unforgiving. Remember that it took the LARGEST ROCKET EVER BUILT to send three guys to the moon for a few days. The moon is only 250 thousand miles away. Mars, at its closest, is 40 million miles away. Next time Elon spouts off about his plans for Mars, just think about those figures and you’ll realize he’s full of shit.

Space travel is what humans are going to do. Some humans, anyway. We aren’t heading out to colonize new worlds on spacefaring arks anytime soon, if ever, so we’ll have to be content with space vacations. They are a bit on the expensive side. The Russians have launched a few space tourists up to the International Space Station. I’ll bet the view is great! Bezos and Branson opted for sub-orbital flights, which are much easier. The ISS is about 250 miles up and it takes quite a bit more thrust to push a rocket into orbit than to just blast it up and let if fall back down.

I’ve no idea whether space travel will actually become affordable. It doesn’t seem likely. But it is going to be a thing. There are a lot of people in the world who have a hell of a lot of disposable money laying around and they are desperate for exciting new adventures. You can’t get a much more exciting new vacation destination than space!

Humans have been launching things into space for decades. The technology is not new. The math is all worked out. These Billionaire Boys—Musk, Branson, Bezos, and their ilk—have the benefit of that vast storehouse of knowledge and experience. They aren’t pioneers. They are building better rockets. They are new and improved rockets, but they are still rockets. They still have to overcome the same physical barriers to get into space. They still have to light off a giant fucking firecracker and blast themselves off the earth. The Vikings made it to North America in a sailboat. Sail power brought people to the Americas for the next 800 years before steam took over. And even with that improvement, a steam-powered boat still had to ride the waves. It took another 100 years before air travel made the journey fundamentally different than it was before.

There is no fundamental breakthrough on the horizon. Humans are still prisoners of their biology and geology. We aren’t going to “beam” anywhere. We’ll have to settle for remote sensing, and even that is subject to the law of physics, namely the speed of light. A radio wave is a light wave and that speed limit means a minimum delay of five minutes when communicating with Mars, for example, and that’s one-way. Space travel is not going to change in our lifetime. There just might be a little more of it.

If these fellows want to spend their billions on their space toys they could at least try to be “green” about it, and I don’t mean “greenbacks.” If they want to be pioneers they can build their rockets with carbon-neutral and net-zero technologies, and power them with green fuels. If you think cars and air conditioners have a big carbon footprint, you’re right. Now think about the carbon footprint of a space vacation industry. Maybe they are already doing such things, and if so, good on them. I know Elon talks a good game, he’s certainly a great salesman, but I don’t know what kind of green commitment his companies actually make. Same for Bezos and Branson. I don’t think Amazon trucks burn natural gas or run on Tesla’s batteries. I don’t think Virgin jets burn bio-diesel.

Maybe they should start there.

Print vs. Digital

Remember magazines? Not that they’ve disappeared of course, there are still plenty of them at the checkout counter in the supermarket. Just that, overall, there are a lot fewer print options to consume these days. Newspapers have been in a steady decline for most of my life. The Siskiyou Daily News, for example, is only a daily in its on-line version. In print it is a weekly. That’s probably a good thing as there isn’t much worth reading in there, but it is indicative of the trend.

It is too expensive to print and mail actual paper copies of things. You don’t get owners manuals or instruction guides anymore, those are all on-line. We all know what .pdf documents are and we all have Adobe Acrobat Reader installed on our computers.

I have no problem with digital documents or e-books or e-zines or e-news or whatever. I use the internet a lot and I spend much of that time looking for interesting stuff to read. I like to read. I’m a voracious consumer of words.

Mostly I read fiction. I prefer actual, physical books to e-readers. It’s a personal preference, not a moral judgment. Things like Kindle are pretty cool. You can store a lot of books on one of those things and a whole library is suddenly portable. But I am more comfortable with paper so I still buy books made from paper. I’ve got shelves and shelves of books. I’m running out of room as I have literally hundreds of books. I keep telling myself I’m going to buy fewer books and then I buy some more. Since the brick-and-mortar bookstore is increasingly an anachronism, I buy books on-line. Usually I only buy them from independent booksellers (like my favorite bookshop, Ziesings) and try to avoid giving Amazon any more money than I already do.

I used to read an excellent monthly magazine called Earth that was put out by the American Geosciences Institute but they stopped publishing it a few years back. The State of California used to publish a superb monthly called California Geology but they stopped that twenty years ago. The University of California still prints and distributes (for free) a quarterly called California Agriculture which I like, but it used to be a monthly. I suspect it will disappear like all the rest and go entirely digital. The College of Natural Resources at Berkeley sends me a quarterly magazine called Breakthroughs which is always interesting but too short and too infrequent.

I need some good non-fiction print reading material. I like science and technology and I like learning about natural resources. I like stuff about agriculture, mining, and energy. I’m interested in global warming and climate change. Most of the good material on these subjects is on the internet.

Capitalism requires an advertising industry. We wouldn’t buy most things that we buy if there were no ads. We have to be admonished repeatedly to get this and get that or else we won’t spend enough money to keep the economy going. It is a really insidious and destructive black art, this advertising thing. Cleverly packaged lies and propaganda burrow themselves into our brains and shape how we see the world. Can anyone actually listen to commercial radio stations these days? I can’t. The advertising is so obnoxious it makes the whole medium repulsive.

But I still need to read. I have to have challenging stuff to chew on. My brain requires regular feeding. I know I could read the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times or Foreign Affairs or other weighty stuff but that’s too much opinion. Just because the people spouting the opinions are smart and good writers doesn’t mean they aren’t full of shit.

I need to read but I need reliable stuff. I don’t want Time or People of any of that checkout counter jive. I don’t have enough interest in guns, or horses, or photography, or automobiles, or gardening or any of the other subjects that the specialty hobbyist-type magazines cover. Those are still plentiful on the racks at the supermarket. I’m always amazed at the number of publications devoted to The Old West. Americans have a serious nostalgia problem! (The Ancient Greeks thought nostalgia was a kind of disease, hence the -algia ending which is Greek for “pain.”)

So I have to find some good print material that’s not just a bucket load of opinions dressed up as “analysis.” One man’s analysis is another man’s asshole. Or something like that. Opinions are like assholes—everyone’s got one. There, that’s what I was thinking. It was one of my Dad’s favorite expressions. He thought everyone was an asshole. Or even if they weren’t an actual asshole, they were still full of shit. He was a bit of a difficult fellow as you might imagine.

I suppose I’ll bite the bullet and join AAAS and subscribe to Science. Scientists are opinionated motherfuckers, and many of them suffer from the Curse of the Smart Person, that is, the inability to believe that they could be wrong. But the process of science tends to weed that stuff out. Ultimately, you have to have evidence in science. You have to have experimental tests of your ideas. That sort of thing is not required in other fields. Imagine if politicians and pundits were held accountable for their claims. In science, you have to be wrong. That is only way the field advances.

Science is pretty expensive. And you get 50 issues per year. About half the material in the magazine is too difficult for me. The articles are often for other experts in the field, not the general reader. I’ll be swimming in reading material. And then I’ll have piles of old magazines that no one will want. Sure, I can just do the on-line thing, but that’s the problem. I don’t really like reading lengthy stuff on-line. I like it in my hands.

Maybe one of my brilliant readers out there can suggest a good magazine or other paper product that I might enjoy. I’m kind of fussy, but open to suggestions.

Lithium

Kurt Cobain launched himself into rock-and-roll immortality with songs like this one. Angst and anger are part-and-parcel of the Western youth experience! Nirvana hit that “chord” perfectly before the sad demise of their front man in 1994.

The song isn’t, on the surface, about depression, but the singer suggests that it is with his melancholy vocals. And most people think the title is a reference to the lithium salts that have been used for centuries to treat such things as bipolar disorder.

Nowadays lithium salts are in big demand because of their use in batteries. Lithium is the lightest of all metals. It is highly reactive and is not found in nature in metallic form but only in compounds. Lithium-ion batteries use mostly lithium cobalt oxide, lithium iron phosphate, or lithium manganese dioxide as the anode. The electrolytes are organic carbonates with lithium-ion complexes. The familiar rechargeable nickel-cadmium battery is cheaper to make, but Li-ion batteries have a higher energy density and operate over a greater range of temperatures.

The electrification of the world’s vehicle fleets will require an enormous investment in the extraction and production of many materials such as copper, nickel, and cobalt. Lithium is one of those and it is near the top of the list. Right now lithium production is mostly from brines. The so-called ABC sources (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile) are underground saltwater lakes. The ion-rich water is brought to the surface and evaporates in large basins called salars. The salts are then mined and processed. Australia and China also have large lithium resources but those are hard rock mines.

Naturally automakers are interested in securing long-term solutions for their lithium supply. Recently General Motors announced their intention to develop the lithium brines along the Salton Sea in California. GM says they will be EV-only by 2035. To do that they’ll need lots of lithium.

The Salton Sea was formed by accident. Colorado River water overflowed its irrigation canals and flooded the ancient lake bed in 1905. Inflows from the Rio Nuevo added to the mix. Over time the salinity and pollution from agricultural and industrial runoff turned the Sea into a toxic wasteland. The only thing happening there now are the geothermal electricity-generating stations. The Salton Trough is bisected by the San Andreas Fault and the area is home to geysers and lava domes (the Salton Buttes).

GM, in partnership with Australian miner CTR Ltd., hopes to develop the Hell’s Kitchen geothermal brine project as a closed-loop system. They envision getting electricity from the geothermal resource to power the extraction of the brine as well as re-injecting the fluid (minus its lithium carbonate) back into the ground. Here’s a diagram:

The communities along the Salton Sea are some of the most impoverished in California. The collapse of the recreation economy decades ago and the on-going air pollution crisis in the region (from toxic evaporites along the shrinking shoreline) are a deadly double-whammy. It would be nice to think that commercial development would benefit locals but that sort of “trickle-down” is often just that—a trickle.

It is estimated that 600,000 tonnes of lithium could be produced annually from Salton Sea brines. The market value of that is on the order of several billion dollars.

That’s a hell of a lot of money. I wonder where it will all go?

Hot

Yup. It’s hot.

It’s going to stay hot—unseasonably hot, that is—until and perhaps past The Fourth.

We are used to hot summers here in Siskiyou County, not as hot as Redding or Sacramento and other spots in the Great Central Valley, but hot enough. This week of 100+ temperatures is notable for its high lows. Often in the summer here on the western edge of the Shasta Valley we can see 45-degree swings from day to night. It will be 95ºF in the afternoon and 50ºF in the early morning. When the temperature gets to three digits you can still get nice, cool mid-fifties temperatures to soothe your soul.

Not so this heat wave. It’s not dropping below 65ºF and in fact was almost 70ºF on our back patio this morning. If you don’t have A/C you need that big cooling drop so you can open up the house and get the hot, stifling overnight air out and the refreshing dawn air in. We are lucky and have excellent cooling, but we remember those days when we didn’t. If, god forbid, there was a power outage then we’d have to go back to our old rituals. Unfortunately the cooling would not be sufficient. I hope all my friends out there in hot places are doing OK!

Just a side note: the metric system blew it on temperature scale. You know it is hot when you go from 99 to 100 in Fahrenheit. In Celsius you go from 37 to 38! Boring. No one cares if you have a 99-degree fever but they get concerned if you hit 100. Fahrenheit has a nice, intuitive feel. Going from two digits to three just seems better. The same can be said for 100-mph. You know you’re rocking when you blast out of the nineties. It’s just not as exciting if it’s in kph, going from 160 to 161.

So, is climate change to blame? Is this heat wave evidence for global warming?

It’s easy to say “yes” but not all questions are meant to be answered in simple, binary fashion.

When scientists study things like gases they use statistical mechanics. This discipline (invented by an American, Josiah Willard Gibbs) views a gas as a gigantic ensemble of countless billions upon billions of molecules. Individual molecules are not important. The vast majority of molecules in the gas may be rising due to added heat for example, but any one particular molecule might be taking its own path. The mathematics of statistical mechanics smears out all those variations and makes probabilistic descriptions of the behavior of the whole mass. It’s the only way to accurately account for things.

Temperature, for example, is an average. If you knew the kinetic energy of every molecule of water in your teapot, you’d find that some were greater than others. Some molecules would be rushing about in a great frenzy, others languidly meandering. But by averaging that energy over the entire collection of molecules you can get a useful number—the temperature—that tells us something about the state of the system.

Just like our one lone molecule that is plunging downward when most of its buddies are racing upward from the added heat, any one particular weather event can be “disconnected” from the global climate. That is, even if humans had never added an ounce of carbon to the atmosphere, we could still get extreme weather events.

This is an extreme weather event. Climate science says we should see an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events.

If I reach into a box of hot air molecules, there’s a good chance the one I grab and measure will have a high kinetic energy. In fact, most of the ones I check with my instruments will confirm my observation. The gas is heating up and the molecules are getting energized and the whole mass is rising and pushing on the roof of the box. But I can still imagine the possibility that I will reach in a find a “cool” molecule that is not playing well with others! The odds of that occurrence are lower, much lower, but they are not zero. (Never mind that I can’t reach in and touch molecules, it’s just what Einstein would call gedanken, or thought-experiment.)

So is our Pacific Northwest Extreme Heat Wave the result of anthropogenic (human-made) carbon in the atmosphere? Is Global Warming the cause? Is it evidence of Climate Change?

Probably.

I told you that statistical mechanics was “probabilistic.” So are climate models. They are models after all, and we know that the map is not the territory. The climate is one thing, the models are another. The models are what we use to describe the global system, and if they are robust and have a good correspondence with the empirical evidence, we use them to make forecasts.

It turns out that the models are good. The great Swedish chemist, Svante Arrhenius, described the greenhouse effect in 1896 and postulated that the burning of fossil fuels by humans could raise global temperatures. That famous reactionary, Edward Teller, he of H-bomb fame (infamy?), spoke in 1959 about the possibility of melting the icecaps due to global warming. (Naturally he promoted nuclear energy as the alternative to fossil fuels.) The most famous climatologist, Charles Keeling, he of the Keeling Curve, was given the President’s National Medal of Science by none other than George W. Bush! Here’s what the award says:

“For his pioneering and fundamental research on atmospheric and oceanic carbon dioxide, the basis for understanding global carbon cycle and global warming.”

https://www.nsf.gov/od/nms/recip_details.jsp?recip_id=191

We all know what a snowflake liberal “Dubya” was!

So, yes.

Global warming and climate change are real phenomena. The models are good. They are giving us solid information to make decisions with. The political choices facing our society are one thing. The facts are quite another.

It’s no comfort. Whether this heat wave is a sure sign of climate change or not doesn’t make us any less hot.

But if we are looking for a “new normal” we’ve found it. We know there will be an increasing number of extreme weather events. That’s a fact. The next extreme event might not be a direct result of global warming, but you can bet there will be another, and it will be sooner than it ought to be.

Maybe that will get us to agree on some possible solutions.

Thirteen billion, anyone?

A 58-year old billionaire by the name of Gautam Adani reportedly lost \$13B last week. His fortune plunged from \$78B to a mere \$65B.

That’s a lot of money. The annual budget for the State of California runs on the order of \$200B. California is the most populous state, with nearly 40,000,000 people, and the third-largest in area, about 169,000 square miles. Imagine having enough money to cover one-third of the state budget.

Imagine being able to weather a loss of THIRTEEN BILLION DOLLARS.

More than half of the world’s working population makes less than \$10,000 per year. About one-third make over \$10,000/yr but less than \$100,000/yr. (Personal note: I’m in that group.) About 12% make over \$100,000/yr but less than \$1,000,000/yr. Two percent are millionaires.

They have a term for rich people: ultra-high net worth individuals. These people are worth \$30,000,000 or more. They comprise zero-point-zero-zero-two percent (0.002%) of the world. (Figures from Global Inequality .org) A billionaire like Gautam Adani, even at his low point of only \$65B is worth as much as two thousand thirty-million types.

Friedrich Engels is not a popular fellow these days, with his and his buddy Karl Marx’ critique of capitalism having been crushed by history. But Engels said something interesting about free market ideologies, claiming that they would lead to a world made up of “millionaires and paupers.” That was in 1844!

The commies proved they didn’t know shit about running a country. Or taking care of their people. But they could at least see that capitalism was not sustainable. We can see it, too. We know that the wealth gap is tearing our society apart. We can watch Jeff Bezos launch himself into space in his very own rocket while his workers struggle to make ends meet.

What would I do with \$13B? I suppose I’d be like Bezos’ ex-wife, the novelist McKenzie Scott, and give a lot of it away. She’s donated over \$2B to charities and is still one of the wealthiest people in the world. I don’t want a helicopter or a solid gold tub or any of that. I’d probably settle for some really expensive bourbon. And get all my clothes made for me. I’d be Mr. Bespoke. I suppose I could buy Idaho or something. Seems like \$13B would go a long way in Idaho.

The USA is the world’s wealthiest nation, but it also has the most—by far—of the world’s millionaires and billionaires. We have a top-heavy income structure. The top one percent of the people own over forty percent of the nation’s wealth. In fact, Americans are not as well-off as they like to think. Median income means that half the people make more, and half the people make less. Our median income is about \$66,000. That’s lower than Switzerland, Australia, Belgium, New Zealand, Japan, Canada, Ireland, France, and the United Kingdom. (All of those countries have some form of socialized medical care and relatively generous old age pensions, I should note.)

With increasing automation and our corporations chasing lower labor costs with maniacal devotion I should expect we will see a steady loss of jobs. Oh, there will be plenty of work to do, but the wages will be too low. There will be fewer opportunities even for people with education and skills. Energy costs will ultimately put the brakes on a lot of development, thus increasing unemployment and enlarging the wealth gap. Like I said, Jeff Bezos has his very own rocket. Poor folks will have to be content with underfunded public transportation.

Anyway, I don’t have the answers. But I think we need to put our heads together about it. Scientists like to chase down The Mysteries of the Universe and I have no problem with that. But I don’t think those problems are actually solvable. I like to think social and economic problems are more solvable. That is, there may not be a particular solution or a clear fix, but I’ll bet there are a hell of a lot of ways things could be improved!