Little Known Wonders of Brazil

This is me greeting the sunrise atop  Pedra dos Dois Irmaos looking east toward Pao de Azucar.  Corcovado to the left. 6am

This is me greeting the sunrise atop Pedra dos Dois Irmaos looking east toward Pao de Azucar. Corcovado to the left. 6am

The inspiration for this trip to Brazil began a number of years ago when I saw a photo of a most extraordinary place: miles and miles of deep white dunes pocked by crystal blue lagoons shining in the tropical sun. Upon investigation I found out this was Lencois Maranhenses, a place this rather well travelled and geographically knowledgeable person had never heard of. It lay on the Atlantic Coast of Brazil about two hundred miles south of the mouth of the Amazon, and  I vowed that I would get there one day. It didn’t look easy but I would make it something of a pilgrimage.BrazilMap

Brazil, it seems, has more wonders inside it’s borders than most Americans, at least, know. On this trip I went to Iguazu Falls  which lies on the Iguazu River in southwestern Brazil on the border with Argentina and just upstream from Paraguay. I met my friend French friend Constant and his girlfriend Paola and we spent two very full days hiking and boating and standing with our mouths open in amazement. The Itaipu Dam, easily a modern man made wonder is nearby on the Parana River, and until the recent construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China, was the largest man made structure in the world. After Iguazu I went to Rio for five days, a city full of it’s own wonders, to visit my friend Michael from Germany. You are probably more familiar with the beauty of this place, or at least I suspect you will be after the Summer Olympics there in 2016. Finally, I took the pilgrimage trip to Lencois Maranhenses by myself and it was indeed not easy to get to. Two flights to the small coastal town of Sao Luis, a night in a fleabag hotel where I almost killed myself on an untempered glass shower door which shattered at my feet, and then a rockin’ four hour bus trip to the actual park entrance.

I left more wonderful things for a future trip: the Amazon of course, the Pantanal, and the futuristic capital of Brasilia designed from scratch right out of the jungle.

Iguazu Falls – Facts and Figures and OMG

Ranking waterfalls is a subjective affair. Are you looking for the highest? The widest? The greatest flow volume? Maybe something aesthetic about the setting? Here are some fact and figures.

Angel Falls at 3212 ft. is pretty clearly the tallest waterfall in the world, but it’s flow is not great, and sometimes the water does not even make it to the bottom before evaporating. Judged by height Iguazu Falls at 269 ft. is not even in the top 1000 waterfalls in the world.

Since very few rivers have a stable flow volume because rainfall and glacier melt usually vary quite a bit throughout the year, ranking rivers this way is challenging (Niagra Falls, which empties four of the Great Lakes into Lake Ontario is exceptionally stable). Khone Falls on the Mekong River in Laos is by any reasonable measure the widest, however, at 35,376 feet  (6.7 miles/10.78 km) during the monsoon season. For comparison, Iguazu is the fifth widest at 8,800 ft. (1.67 miles/2.68 kms), Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River is eleventh widest at 5,600 ft. (1.06 miles/1.7 kms) and Niagra Falls is thirteenth widest at 3,950 feet (.75 miles/1.2 kms).

Ranking waterfalls by volume is especially subjective. Besides varying because of climatic conditions, many large flow waterfalls have been harnessed for hydroelectric purposes. Then there is the question of whether to include rivers like the Inga waterfall on the Congo River which is really a series of cascades over a nine mile stretch. Nevertheless, Iguazu Falls clearly lies in the top ten just behind Niagra Falls. When I was there I was lucky enough to see the falls at a rather high level after recent rains.

Then, of course, there is the setting, the most subjective measure possible. According to the folks at World Waterfall Database ( this is where Iguazu Falls sails to the top. To quote them: “This is what Niagara Falls should have been – pristine, protected and allowed to flow unabated with the full wrath of its river. This is nature at its most primal, most incredible and most spectacular. There was no question in our minds, Iguazú Falls is the best waterfall on the planet and there’s really nothing else that needs to be said.” The Iguazu River flows right out of the jungle over cliffs that twist and turn for one and two thirds miles, speckled with trees and rocks and small islands. The mists is so great that when the sun is shining there are rainbows all around. I hope my photos do it justice!

Rio De Janeiro


The basic layout of Rio de Janeiro. Corcovado is the mountain in the center with the Christ statue. Pao de Azucar with it’s cable cars is to the right (east) abutting Guanabara Bay. The twin mountains (Dos Irmaos) where I watched the sunrise is to the left (west) above Leblon.

You may be surprised to find out that the Harbor of Rio De Janeiro, on Guanabara Bay, has been deemed to be one of the seven natural wonders of the world [along with the Aurora Borealis, the Grand Canyon, the Great Barrier Reef, Mount Everest, Paricutin (a Mexican volcano), and Victoria Falls (Iguazu robbed!)]. This was determined by an organization called, what else?, Seven Natural Wonders. Just who that organization is you can read about by clicking here.

This really isn’t a stretch, because Rio de Janeiro lies in what has to be the most singularly gorgeous and unusual physical setting of any city in the world. Guanabara Bay is transversed by the Serra do Mar mountain range which runs at varying elevations for 1500 miles along the east coast of South America. Giant pillars of granite poke up through the ground to great heights around the city from where one can see some of the world’s great beaches and most colorful slums. It’s an atonishing sight. I managed to get to the top of three of them.

The largest of these granite pillars (within the city) is called Corcovado at 2300 feet (700 m) above the horizon. One can take a taxi here up through the Santa Marta favela (slum) where Michael Jackson filmed his music video “They Don’t Care About Us”. At the top is the statue of Christ the Redeemer (Christo Redentor) which is packed with tourists on days when it’s not enshrouded in fog. If you have a picture of Rio de Janeiro in your head, it is probably an image of this statue of Christ looking down on Rio. It is indeed an impressive statue with an impressive view, even more so I’m sure if you happen to be Christian. For these reasons alone, going to Corcovado is somewhat obligatory for the tourist.

The second most common pillar scaled by tourists is Pao de Azucar (SugarLoaf), mostly accessible by cable car. I braved the crowds on a beautiful evening to get pictures of the city at sunset. Highly recommended! Really a breathtaking sight, just try not to imagine the hundreds of people just outside the camera frame.

A far less touristy thing to do, apparently, is to watch the sunRISE from the pillars of Dos Irmaos. For this, I got up in the middle of the night to meet my friend Michael and his girlfriend Sarah at their apartment at 4am. We hailed a taxi to the Vidigal favela where we wound our way up to where a very non official trail began, accessible between two nondescript houses. We used our iPhones as flashlights in the dark for the hour climb and when we got to the top we found ourselves alone at the top, the lights of Rio at our feet just before the sun came up. It was almost humbling to be alone here and a bit mind boggling that no one else in this city of millions thought to come up here this night to witness this beautiful scene.  I’m really grateful to Michael and Sarah for suggesting this unorthodox hike.

Wherever one goes in Rio, the favelas are all around. These poor neighborhoods where most of the labor force of Rio lives were until recently mostly governed by local “authorities” outside of the official city government. The word favela is sometimes translated as “slum” into English, but this is a bit inaccurate as these neighborhoods do not have the squalor or hopelessness of a “slum” in the shadow of an American city, for example. Granted, they are poor, but they are also colorful bastions of resourcefulness and neighborliness. For the most part I felt safe there. I would definitely recommend going on a tour of a favela when you are in Rio. I thought it might be unseemly for a “wealthy American” to be touring other’s “misfortune,” but this turned out to be a misconception. For good reason, the people there had no reason to be ashamed and they were not. Part of our tour fee when to help out a school there.

Lencois Maranhenses

So, getting to Lencois Maranhenses did turn out to be something of a pilgrimage. I set out by myself from Rio, and two flights later I landed in the small coastal town of Sao Luis, about 200 miles south of the Amazon. For me, this place was a way station where I planned to sleep for the night before I set out on a four hour bus trip to the park entrance the next day. What I had expected would be an uneventful overnight, however, became more exciting when I turned off the water in the shower of my one star motel, and the glass door shattered into a million pieces around me, three shards of which found their way into my wrist and thumb. Time to think fast! Luckily I did not injure my feet or my entire trip to Lencois Maranhenses, my motivation for going to Brazil in the first place, would have been for nought. Thank God for copious amounts of iodine. I was not deterred!

Lancois Maranhenses did not disappoint my expectations. Surely, the only reason most people have not heard of this place is because it is rather difficult to get to and not near many other sites for tourists. Not since Iceland have I fell so much like I was walking across the surface of some alien planet. The park is comprised of 580 square miles of rolling sand dunes composed of the most beautiful white sand. Although it looks like a desert to most people’s eyes, it actually receives up to 75 inches of torrential rain during the wet season from January to May. This water does not drain down due to an impenetrable layer of bedrock, and instead fills up the depressions between the dune peaks with spectacular lagoons. One needs a guide to visit this protected area, but it is possible to swim in the lagoons and most people I saw there did (not those worried about keeping bacteria out of wounds on their hands). For the nature photographer, this place is a dream. For a more complete understanding of the physics of how these dunes form and change, a great resource is here.

Getting home from this remote place while nursing an injury required what I think of as a travel meditation mindset. You can’t think too much of how much you have to do, or when you’ll sleep, or how much farther or longer you have to go. Just stay in the moment appreciating the beauty around you and your task at hand. Soon enough you are back in your own bed.

Just click on the photos to make them larger.




Zeno and the Extent of Space and Time

Among the many ancient Greeks noted for enjoying mind games was a certain Zeno of Elea. He liked to conjure up apparently self contradictory ideas called paradoxes, and one of his most famous runs something along the lines of this: Suppose you’d like walk to the door of a room. In your first step you travel half way to the door. In your next step you travel half way again (which is one fourth of the original distance). You keep this up, moving only half way with each step… and so, even if you keep moving forever, eeking your way forward by ever tinier bits, you can never actually make it to the door. Zeno believed this because he believed space was a continuum which could be forever divided. The paradoxes associated with this conundrum has been tackled by great philosophers from Aristotle to Bertrand Russell and by mathematicians using such techniques as calculus and “convergent infinite series.” But don’t worry, I’m not going to invoke mathematics here. What interests me about this paradox is not if I will ever get to the door, but rather – just how small is it possible to go?! At first it is easy to consider one half of the distance. But what about after a trillion trillion years of going half way every single second? Just how far would such an infinitesimal distance be? Can you even imagine such a thing going on forever? It would be a voyage to inner space.

But now try going in the opposite direction, “out” this time, instead of “in”, first to the door, then twice as far as the door, and twice as far again with each step. I’m guessing you may have considered this before, maybe when you were a kid and didn’t have a mortgage or rent to think about. In no time you’d be as far as the moon, then across the solar system, leaping out of our Milky Way galaxy on your way to the edge of the known Universe…until…? What happens when you get to the edge of the Universe? Can the Universe even have an edge? What would be on the other side? There must always be farther to go! Right?! Space must just go on forever and ever and ever.

And for that matter, the same goes for time too.  When was ten minutes before the creation of the Universe in the Big Bang 14.5 billion years ago? And then just keep going back infinitely. How about longer than a trillion trillion years after tomorrow? How can time possibly be bounded? It’s unfathomable. And somewhat terrifying. Honestly, the only thing that seems real to me is right now.

Magnitudes and the Scale of the Universe

As we try to fathom the scale of the Universe from the depths of inner space to the mind boggling extent of outer space, it’s helpful if we take bigger leaps than Zeno’s one half step. A common device used by mathematicians and scientists in cases where they have to conceptualize, and measure, some vast quantity is to divide and multiply by tens rather than two. This gets us moving more quickly and it is also intelligible due to our familiarity with the base ten numeral system that we use. So, modifying Zeno’s instructions, our first step will bring us 1/10 the original distance from the door, the next will take us 1/100 the distance, followed by 1/1000, etc… Proceeding outward, we would first be 10 times the distance, followed by 100 times and so on. Mathmematically this would look something like this: […10^-3, 10^-2, 10^1, 1, 10^1, 10^2, 10^3…]. To the scientist, steps that move by tens are called “magnitudes” and measuring this way helps in more situations than distance. When measuring the strength of an earthquake, for example, geophysicists use the Richter Scale which measures the quake’s force in magnitudes, so that a six on the Richter Scale has actually ten times the force released in a quake that measures five. Astronomers use a similar scale in measure the brightness of stars so that a star of magnitude two is ten times dimmer thant a star of magnitude one (the direction may be opposite from what you’d expect).

Since we determined above, using Zeno’s example, that the smallest and the largest scales of space are unfathomable, we shouldn’t start measuring at the extremes, but rather on the scale of, say, our own bodies. The meter is the most common measure of space in the world today, a distance most people have a grasp of, and so we can start there. Two magnitudes below the meter is the centimeter, 1/100 of a meter, or about the width of your fingernail. Three magnitudes higher than the meter is the kilometer, about how far a fit person can walk in ten mintues. Luckily for us, some enterprising and imaginative people at IBM have created a video to help us envision what it like to travel by leaps of ten from the width fo a proton (1/10^-16 meters) atom to about “the limit of our vision” (10^24 meters), a distance of forty magnitudes. This worthwhile nine minute video can be accessed on vimeo by pressing here. And if you’d like a bit more control, you can play with this brilliant widget which takes you all the way down to the Planck length (see below) at negative forty magnitudes out to the edge of the know universe at positive 27 magnitudes; if you do this fast you really get the sense of what it means to travel to inner and outer space.

The Digital versus Analog Universe

By the end of the nineteenth century most phenomenon which could be observed in the world around us appeared to be explained by what we now call classical physics. This included Newton’s laws of motion, Maxwell’s laws of electricity and magnitism and Kelvin’s laws of thermodyamics. It was common at the time to believe that we had in fact reached the end of science. There were a few “minor” questions which still needed to be answered if one thought very big, like at the speed of light, or very small like at the cause of radiation or the structure of the atom, but surely, the extremes would just be an extention of the natural laws we already knew.

Then, in the twentieth century, came the scientific revolutions of quantum mechanics, the physics of the most wee, and relativity, the physics of the most immense, which revolutionized our understanding of space and time. Thank you Mr. Einstein.

Let’s examine just how our understanding of space and time have changed. The reason that Zeno’s Paradox is appealing is because it is natural to assume his premise that space is a continuum and not constructed from discrete bits at any level. In modern lingo we call this the difference between an analog (continuum) world and a digital (discrete) world. In case you aren’t familiar with this difference, it’s germane to our modern world of gadgetry. Let’s, consider the clock. The only clocks our great grandmothers knew where the kind where the hands moved gradually across the face. This was an analog device that required a small bit of judgement as to when the time changed from three minutes after twelve to four minutes after twelve.  This is how the world appears to us and how it appeared to Zeno; between any point from here to there was a point in between. We gracefully move across the stage of life. Today, however, we have created digital devices (often with the aid of quantum mechanics) that deal with the world in discrete lumps. (Scientists call these lumps “quanta.”) When you go to bed at night your modern digital clock may say that it is either 12:03am or 12:04am but not something in between. And well, it turns out that much to our surprise, the entire universe, is digital. Everything comes in lumps. Time, space, energy, mass, everything.

With this in mind, let’s turn our attention back toward Zeno and his paradox concerning space. It was Max Planck, one of the

Max Planck, discoverer of the smallest possible length.

Max Planck, discoverer of the smallest possible length.

founders of quantum mechanics, who discovered, using tricky mathematics and such things as the speed of light and the strength of gravity, that there actually is a kind of “smallest amount of space”. Today this is called the “Planck length” in his honor and it is indeed unimaginably small:

.0000000000000000000000000000000000016 meters   or  1.6 x 10^(-35) meters

If it means anything more to you, perhaps after clicking on the widget link above, that would be about one ten millionth of a trilltionth of a trillionth of the width of a hydrogen atom. It’s WAY down there! But I said “kind of the smallest amount of space” above because it isn’t even very clear what space means at that point. We certainly can’t do any experiments at that scale. What we can say is something like this. Imagine a ruler the size of the Planck length. Call one end A and the other end B. It is possible to be at A or B at any one time but not somewhere in between. And if we were able to look at something “being” at A or B it is just as likely to be at one as the other. To answer Zeno, once you have finally arrived at two Planck lengths from the door to the room, you can go one more Planck length…but no more! You have arrived. Zeno has been answered.

The Scale our Brains Live On; The Human Sense of Reality

The smooth analog way that the world looks to us and the classical physics we use to explain this world is something that is comfortable to us. Our brains evolved to understand the world at this scale we live on, and no other, for this is the only kind of understanding that would be useful to our ancient troglodyte ancestors. Allow me to expand on this idea. At the shortest end of our experience of time is something that we might consider to be “now.” It might include something like how long it takes the neurons in our brain to assimilate the image of a tiger on our retina, form the concept of “tiger,” recognize the danger, and then send signals down to our muscles to “run”! At the most optimistic, let’s say this takes 1/100 of a second. And while that seemingly instantaneous moment is long enough for light to travel almost 1,863 miles, it is the shortest span of time that we can sense. Shorter than “now” is indistinct. Our sense of time also begins to blur on the long end of the time scale. We might comfortably think we can experience the time between the planting of a tree and its harvest years later or how our pollution might effect the lives of our grandchildren, but millions of years of time are really only understood academically, not experiencially.

So now this is the really interesting thing. It turns out that the way the world works on really small scales and really large scales don’t just look foreign to our human minds, but impossible. Things happen on these scales that we cannot begin to wrap our minds around.

On the scale that we live on, concepts such as “cause and effect” and the three dimensional extent of space are easily grasped by our minds. If I want to shoot an arrow at some target I sense how I need to shoot it with this specific force and in this specific direction. Maybe I’ll catch some tasty deer for dinner. Sending a man to the moon is complicated, but it is also not unintelligible, because it required mostly classical physics. On very small scales, however, say the size of an atom and smaller, classical physics is of no use at all. In the model of the atom that most of us may have learned in school, electrons “orbit” about the nucleus. This model and vocabulary conjures up notions that the atom is something like the earth and the moon or any solar system with orbiting planets. But the electrons and nucleus of an atom are nothing like that. The position of the moon around the earth can be predicted thousands of years in advance by just knowing the postion and speed of the moon around the earth right now. But if you want to find the position of an electron around an atomic nucleus you can either determine its position or its speed, but not both. This makes it impossible to determine where an electron will be for certain in the future. No, it’s more than that. An electron has no deterministic position in the future. The best it has are odds that it could be found here or there and odds that it is moving at such and such a speed. They exist in a zone of probability. This is pretty disturbing to our concept of cause and effect! We rely on cause and effect to escape the jaws of a tiger. Only a world of cause and effect makes sense to our human minds.

Large scales also mess with our sense of time and space. I have a sense that time marches on like a metronome, tick-tock, passing along out there in the world, outside my mind. Distance too seems immutable. Speed, however, seems like it is not a constant thing and that nothing could stop you from going faster and faster. But it’s just the opposite! It turns out that time and space can be stretched or compressed depending on relative speed or the presence of strong gravitational field, while the Universe has a speed limit which is precisely the speed of light. If you were to take off on a space ship at close to the speed of light and then return, you will have aged less than me; perhaps significantly depending on how far you went and how close to the speed of light you approached. This is readily calculated using a mathematical formula called the Lorentz transform and has been verified perfectly using atomic clocks aboard the space station (not even remotely approaching the speed of light of course). The same is also true in the presence of a strong gravitational field; time literally slows and space contracts. Furthermore, our sense of simultaneous events is also affected by speed and distance. Can you imagine what a loved one is doing right now on the other side of planet or in their home across the city? (both are nearby) How about on a planet a billion light years away and receding from us rapidly? To someone on that planet, “now” would be sometime in our past and we are living in their future. On large scales our concept of “simultaneous” fails as well.

So, which is it? Does quantum mechanics and relativity describe the way our Universe works or does the classical physics of Newton? The answer is that neither of them actually contradict classical physics, they simply add to the spectrum of things we can now measure. What happens is that the probability of events on the quantum scale collapses to deterministic events according the law of large numbers. If you flip a coin just once, the odds that you’ll get one heads is exactly one half. But it you flip it one billion times the odds of getting just head heads are exceedingly rare. It could happen, theoretically, but then it could also happen that you walk right through the wall if given enough time, like trillions of years. Barring these exceedingly rare events, for us up here on our relatively large world, Newton works just fine.

What truly excites “Craig’s sense of wonder” is the discovery that my mind is limited. imagesI simply don’t have the mental hardware to understand the world of the tiny or large. Stuff that looks miraculous to me is really happening and I don’t get it. I can’t fathom it, can’t really picture it, and no human can, not even Einstein could. It’s not possible to grasp something that we have no mental apparatus for, just like your dog can’t tell you if he’d like to be buried or cremated and you can’t smell you lover’s lover’s apartment on their coat like a dog. Imagine a being that evolved on the quantum scale that found it perfect normal that it was never quite certain what would happen, or a vastly huge being across a galaxy that could feel how much slower time passes near the black hole in the center of its body. Alright, alright! Perhaps it’s time to settle back to my reality before I venture too far into science fiction. How about ending with a visit to the writing of that master observer, Henry David Thoreau? From Zeno to Thoreau. That I can do.

Henry David Thoreau and the Battle of the Ants

In 1845, Henry David Thoreau went to live in the woods near Walden pond in Massachusetts. One of his aims was to expand his consciousness and become a better observer of nature. One fall day he happened to look at what was happening about two magnitudes below his usual world, which you now know is about the size of your fingernail. What he found was remarkable, for just below his peaceable world he witnessed a very vicious war.


The Battle of the Ants

Henry David Thoreau

One day when I went out to my wood-pile, or rather my pile of stumps, I observed two large ants, the one red, the other much larger, nearly half an inch long, and black, fiercely contending with one another. Having once got hold they never let go, but struggled and wrestled and rolled on the chips incessantly. Looking farther, I was surprised to find that the chips were covered with such combatants, that it was not a duellum, but a vellum, a war between two races of ants, the red always pitted

Henry David Thoreau's shack on Walden Pond. Two magnitudes beneath this idyllic scene a fierce battle raged.

Henry David Thoreau’s shack on Walden Pond. Two magnitudes beneath this idyllic scene a fierce battle raged.

against the black, and frequently two red ones to one black. The legions of these Myrmidons covered all the hills and vales in my woodyard, and the ground was already strewn with the dead and dying, both red and black. It was the only battle which I have ever witnessed, the only battle-field I ever trod while the battle was raging; internecine war; the red republicans on the one hand, the black imperialists on the other. On every side they were engaged in deadly combat, yet without any noise that I could hear, and human soldiers never fought so resolutely. I watched a couple that were fast locked in each other’s embraces, in a little sunny valley amid the chips, now at noonday prepared th fight till the sun went down, or life went out. The smaller red champion had fastened himself like a vise to his adversary’s front, and through all the tumblings on that field never for an instant ceased to gnaw at one of his feelers near the root, having already caused the other to go by the board; while the stronger black one dashed him from side to side, and, as I saw on looking nearer, had already divested him of several of his members. They fought with more pertinacity than bulldogs. Neither manifested the least disposition to retreat. It was evident that their battle cry was “Conquer or die.” In the meanwhile there came along a single red ant on the hillside of this valley, evidently full of excitement, who either had dispatched his foe, or had not yet taken part in the battle; probably the latter, for he had lost none of his limbs; whose mother had charged him to return with his shield or upon it. Or perchance he was some Achilles, who had nourished his wrath apart, and had now come to avenge or rescue his Patroclus. He saw this unequal combat from afar,–for the blacks were nearly twice the size of the red,–he drew near with rapid pace till he stood on his guard within half an inch of the combatants; when, watching his opportunity, he sprang upon the black warrior, and commenced his operations near the root of his right fore leg, leaving the foe to select among his own members; and so there were three united for life, as if a new kind of attraction had been invented which put all other locks and cements to shame. I should not have wondered by this time to find that they had their respective musical bands stationed on some eminent chip, and playing their national airs the while, to excite the slow and cheer the dying combatant. I was myself excited somewhat even as if they had been men. The more you think of it, the less the difference. And certainly there is not the fight recorded in Concord history, at least, if in the history of America, that will bear a moment’s comparison with this, whether for the numbers engaged in it, or for the patriotism and heroism displayed. For numbers and for carnage it was an Austerlitz or Dresden. Concord fight! Two killed on the patriot’s side, and Luther Blanchard wounded! Why here every ant was a Buttrick,–“Fire, for God’s sake fire!”–and thousands shared the fate of Davis and Hosmer. There was not one hireling there. I have no doubt that it was a principle they fought for, as much as our ancestors, and not to avoid a three-penny tax on their tea; and the results of this battle will be as important and memorable to those whom it concerns as those of the battle of Bunker Hill, at least.

I took up the chip on which the three I have particularly described were struggliing, carried it into my house, and placed it under a tumbler on my window-sill, in order to see the issue. holding a microscope to the first-mentioned red ant, I saw that, though he was assicuously gnawing at the near fore leg of his enemy, havng severed his remaining feeler, his own breast was all torn away, exposing what vitals he had there to the jaws of the black warrior, whose breastplate was apparently too thick for him to pierce; and the dark carbuncles of the sufferer’s eyes shone with ferocity such as war only could excite. They struggled half an hour longer under the tumbler, and when I looked again the black soldier had severed the heads of his foes from their bodies, and the still living heads were hanging on either side of him like ghastly trophies at his saddle-bow, still apparently as firmly fastened as ever, and he was endeavoring with feeble struggles, being without feelers and with only the remnant of a leg, and I know not how many other wounds, to divest himself of them; which at length, after half an hour more, he accomplished. I raised the glass, and he went off over the window-sill in that crippled state. Whether he finally survived that combat, and spent the remainder of his days in some Hotel des Invalides, I do now know; but I thought that his industry would not be worth much thereafter. I never learned which party was victorious, nor the cause of the war; but I felt for the rest of that day as if I had had my feelings excited and harrowed by witnessing the struggle, the ferocity and carnage of a human battle before my door.


What do you suppose aliens would think if they were to travel across vast distances of space and time only to observe us humans at war?



Let’s All Become Flight Attendants and Complain!

(It’s satire folks!)

images-7Hear ye! Hear ye! After many years of relying on dinosaur flight attendants, it seems the airlines are once again adding new hires into this most exclusive of clubs. Are you good with people? If so, then pick up the phone and see if you can get an interview with a computerized screener robot who can determine if you have the verbal skills necessary for this socially demanding job. You have to start somewhere and talking to a hard drive is a good first cut. If you are lucky enough to be selected,  then after just six short weeks in an indoctrination center, a place with so many cameras that Aldous Huxley and Edward Snowden would be impressed, you’ll head out to the city of the airline’s choice. You won’t make much money, but all the fun codependant roommates you’ll have (four to a bedroom!) will surely make up for it.  You’ve heard about all the perks, right? They’re all true to be sure, but what few people seem to mention are all the diverse ways that you’ll have to practice whining, moaning, griping, and grumbling. You know, that thing that humans just love to do during their short life on this planet. So everyone! Let’s all become flight attendants and complain!!!

What a glamorous life, right? Lunch in Chicago and dinner in Rome. Boyfriend in San Francisco on Tuesday and boyfriend in Madrid on Wednesday. Meet movie stars out of Los Angeles, take tango lessons in Buenos Aires, attend a tea ceremony in Tokyo, climb the Great Wall in Beijing and sail up the Loire Valley in France.  Well, after you work for many many years a really cool gag is to grab a plastic bag, go through the cabin collecting trash, and when you get to the back of the plane look at your coworkers, open the trash, smile conspiratorially, and say “Thirty years on this job and I’m still looking for the glamour!” LOL! That’s SO funny! Then upon disembarking in Paris, instead of going all the way through French immigration and customs, wonder aloud how they expect you to descend the two flights of stairs, with your six bags, all the way down to the bus waiting just for you and your crew mates on the tarmac. It’s an accident waiting to happen! Even after an hour and a half drive to the hotel in traffic, the rooms will probably still not be ready immediately, so groan a bit and walk all the way up the avenue to get a warm chocolate croissant from the boulangerie. What a pain. If only you worked in a cubicle you could just mosey on down the hall to the metal snack cart by the elevators and get a danish wrapped in cellophane. There is always one crew member on every trip who decides to become ambitious, get a quick nap and head for the Louvre or to the Eiffel Tower for a picnic. Good for them! Let’s not us do that though! Let’s slam our doors and not reappear until it’s time to go back to work the next morning. Maybe there’s some glamour on CNN International. Hey, there might even be news from Paris!

There’s nothing like the sight of fresh foreign language speaking college students coming aboard to join us in the flight attendant profession. Oh! They are so naive in their idealism! So earnest and hopeful. Aren’t they just adorable? Don’t ya just want to squeeze them? Well, let’s not delay in disabusing them of their starry eyed notions of meeting fabulous people across the whole wide world. We need to break them in and there’s no better time than the boarding process. “Look at that woman with the huge bag. She better not ask me to help her!” “Keep an eye on that guy. He wanted an upgrade. He’ll probably try to sneak into Business Class.” “OMG, someone around row 25 really smells!” “Hey, who put their bag in with the emergency equipment?!” Be sure to teach your fledgling the most important goal of the boarding process: finding the one person who is going to spoil your whole flight and reconfirm your belief that all humans are idiots. Then march to the back of the plane and proclaim to the flight attendants hiding out in the galley – “FYI! I can tell you right now that 17D is a real ass! I already told him that we don’t have extra pillows and blankets so don’t anyone get him one!” If your new hire starts chatting with an enthusiastic French high school class or a college student whose is working with Somali refugees in Kenya, remind them that you once liked people too.  If you say it with enough condecension it practically counts as much as a complaint.

Although you will rarely have a boss watching you for your entire work life, don’t forget that a passenger could write a letter to the company and that’s pretty intimidating. Maybe they will say you had a bad tone in your voice or something and then your “supervisor” will call you in to ask “what do you know about this?” After you introduce yourself, think fast on your feet and say your don’t remember the incident. Wow, that was a close call! So nerve wracking how the company intimidates you. And if dealing with the passengers is difficult, dealing with your fellow flight attendants is downright impossible. You might manage to make it through an entire trip with Doris the Drama Queen or Max the Misanthrope or Olly the Obsessive Compulsive but you’ll only have to work with them all over again in, like, six months or a year. If only you worked with them every day you might have the chance to work things through and figure out how everyone else could be doing their job better. Oh, and did I forget Gertie the Gossip? Flight attendants may indeed confirm the stereotype of being socially intelligent, but my goodness, how they will talk behind your back and spread gossip! Go to the front of the plane and tell Blanche how you think Daphne must have put on ten pounds, and then head to the back of the plane and tell Daphne how you heard that Blanche’s boyfriend is sleeping with another flight attendant (no names!). It’s just disgraceful!! Why, why do we all have to be so callous with one another I just don’t know.  You know, Scarlet told everyone that she thinks Amber’s husband must be gay (can you believe it?!) and now Ann told me that Amber refuses to fly with Scarlet, let alone talk to her, and I can’t say I blame her. To top it off, I know for a fact that Scarlet is addicted to Valium. Just watch, right before her break she has to bring her purse into the bathroom, and if you pay attention, afterward you can see that she acts a little weird. It get’s boring on the plane for so many hours so make sure you cause some gratuitous melodrama to pass the time away. Then run up to the lead flight attendant, just as if they were your kindergarten teacher and try to get them to side with you. That’s what they are paid a wee bit extra for!

Make sure you and your fellow flight attendants spend at least five minutes griping about how the reading lights and audio aren’t working at 27C and 33H. “They expect us to use passenger names in the premium cabins, but they can’t be bothered to fix the electronics in the coach seats!” Then, promptly forget to write up the problem in the log book. Hey, If you are lucky, maybe you’ll get this plane again tomorrow! And maybe your flight will even cancel and you can stay home and attend your neighborhood block party instead of getting paid. I’m sure your neighbors will confirm how unfair it all is.

And speaking of parties, it’s amazing how flight attendants are always the center of attention. Everyone loves to hear stories of how idiotic people can be, especially when you get them all together in a narrow tube for hours. Did someone really ask you what language they speak in England? Did someone really try to open the bathroom by pulling out the ashtray on the door? (One brave soul might admit that they did that!) Or we can talk about all the times we nearly died. The thing is though, the average person doesn’t realize how hard it is being a flight attendant!! No, we aren’t just flight attendants! We are paramedics, firemen, diplomats, psychologists, travel agents, mechanics. concierge, waiters, air marshalls, sanitation engineers, and on and on…uuggggh! It’s exhausting. Then after work we have to somehow fight our constant jetlag by sleeping in the middle of the day. If this is at a layover hotel we might be lucky enough to be awoken on the day the “Fire Drill Practice” is scheduled, or listen to the pleasant droning of the elevated train or highway which can only be heard on our side of the building. If we try to sleep at home its usually not better either. That dang roofer is up there pounding the new shingles in…what the hell!…doesn’t he know that it’s twenty below zero and the wind is howling at forty miles an hour? D’oh! He should call in sick! That’s what I do. And in the summer I like to contemplate what a doofus the lawn mower man is to be cutting the grass while I try to sleep. The roar of the engine can clearly be heard over the constant din of your central air conditioner. For God’s sake doesn’t he know it is nearly one hundred degrees outside? Well, I’m not getting up to get him him a glass of water with ice. Not after I’ve been doing that all night on the plane. He can drink from the hose!

Instead of doing “walk throughs” in the cabin every fifteen minutes to make sure everyone is OK, or to meet someone new (you’ve got to be kidding), or that there are no nefarious security issues, one amusing way to spend endless hours on the jumpseat is to focus on how evil the airline management is. Their sole purpose in life is to the suck the marrow out of your bones and leave nothing but a soulless shell of a human being. They are just so greeeeeedy! They have no moral compass like those titans of commerce in, say, banking, or food processing, or oil and gas production who work tirelessly trying to make a better life for their employees, the general public and their shareholders. If you are lucky, your company might go bankrupt and the evil management will get their comeuppance and receive only a $10 million dollar golden parachute instead $20 million dollars. Let’s hope they starve! For awhile you’ll have a vestige of hope that the new management will actually treat their employees like they are human beings. But No! Seems they are all the same! LOL! What were we thinking?!  Oh well, that’s all right. It feels so good to be full of that old familiar sense of self righteousness. What if we ever had something nice to say about someone in management? Cut out my tongue! Well, no worries…that’s impossible!

Haven’t you all heard endless pining from people you meet about how great it must be to get flight benefits? We just walk on a plane whenever we want to go anywhere we want! Well, LOL, I don’t think so! I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to do on my vacation is to see another airport! Good God! After we have finagled our way to stretching  our vacation into three and a half weeks (that’s not going to last), let’s drive to visit our dysfunctional half sister Freda (what a bitch), Willard (womanizer) and their three uncontrollable spoiled brats for vacation. We can complain the whole time we are there, plus rant about it for weeks after we return to work. It’s just impossible to non-rev these days anyway. With all the upgrades there is no way of knowing if you’ll get first class and there is no way I’m going anywhere in coach. Puuleeassse.

Now everyone knows that being a flight attendant is not a “real” job, so of course, don’t make plans on doing this for more than five years before you find your true life’s calling. Right around the time that you hear yourself telling your colleagues just how much you can’t stand this job and how you’ve grown to hate people, take advantage of the work time flexibility to try something like nursing, real estate, or teaching. You may find that at the hospital when someone rings their call bell they don’t just want a diet coke – it seems their bed pan is leaking, they just threw up on them self or they need more pain relief from the aching cancer in their bones. Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation? A daily occurrence if you are doing a shift on the cardiac floor. You’ll be so good at this because you already had so much experience using automatic electronic defibrillators on passengers with heart attacks (too many to count). And doesn’t selling homes sounds exciting? More fun with entitled people who have totally unrealistic expectations about what life owes them. As  a flight attendant you may have 44 days on reserve every year, but as a realtor you can sit around staring at the phone and waiting for it to ring 365 days/year. That’s about an 8x increase! Then surely, just as most folks are free to go house hunting after work, you can drop your dinner plans to drive across town during rush hour to show a home to people “just looking.” If teaching is your career diversion of choice you may notice how every spare minute outside the classroom is spent making lesson plans and correcting papers or exams. This is a bit like your flight attendant job where you are always thinking up more efficient ways to serve drinks or going back over the location of emergency equipment in your head while waiting in traffic. Oh dear. After just a short time testing out these other career choices, you will surely be back to the airline, tail between your legs because, you see, no one ever really quits. It may take some effort to get your complaining skills back up to speed. But surely, it won’t be long before you will take it all for granted once again.

When the inevitable time comes to retire, you may find the airline offers you a payment of, say, $40,000 to “separate.”  How do they expect you to retire off that??!! I’m telling you, it’s just one more slap in the face as you walk out the door! Well, at least you are free!! And if you get lucky you may even have ten more years to start living your life. Who knows how you’ll do that, but I can guess one thing…you won’t be getting on another airplane!

What opportunities to practice the art of complaining exists in your profession?

Loop Around the Alps

To view a larger version of the pictures, click once on a photo in the gallery at the bottom of the post.

It had been two and a half years since Fabian and I had taken a car trip and we were ready to hit the road again. This time we headed for mountains of the non-volcanic sort and set out to make our way through the Alps, eastward toward Budapest, down to Croatia and back through Slovenia to Milan where we started. I was keen on seeing more of eastern Europe since previously I’d only been to Prague. I won’t bore you with daily details. Instead I will choose a few germane topics to help the sundry traveler. The well captioned photos also speak to my particular experience. For reference, here is a map of our trip: LoopAroundtheAlps_0001

Alternative Accomodations

In my Southwest Loop post I discussed the option of couchsurfing: staying in a stranger’s home for free. On this trip I experimented with another option: Airbnb. With Arbnb you still stay in another person’s home, but in this case you pay something (usually less than a hotel) and receive a little more in return such as more privacy or a clean bed instead of a couch. I arrived in Milan a day earlier than Fabian in order to get a good sleep before we met up and embarked toward the mountains. Incredibly, just as my first couchsurfing experience was incredible with Mikhael, my first Airbnb experience was stellar with Sandy. She actually picked me up at the airport, took me to her apartment (where she was not staying at that moment) and gave me the keys. An hour after my arrival I was standing alone in a stranger’s apartment in Italy. Then, after I napped, she came and took me to have a snack and meet a friend, only to be followed later by inviting me to an outdoor

Sandy, my first Airbnb hostess in the middle.

Sandy, my first Airbnb hostess in the middle.

dancing/garden party with more friends. That night I had another solid sleep. All that for half the price of a sterile hotel! Thank you Sandy, ambassador for Airbnb! You might think I’m crazy to just hop in a stranger’s car at the airport. Or especially that Sandy was crazy for bringing me, a strange man (both unfamiliar and odd) home. There are safety checks with this system, but nothing beats your good ole intuition. I found an excellent link that explains these alternative accomodation styles here.

Renting Cars in Europe

On this trip Fabian and I ran into a few issues regarding car rental in Europe. Americans should note that most Europeans that I have spoken to are of the opinion that American car insurance (even what comes with your credit card usage) either does not work in Europe or is incredibly difficult to file a claim with. So the rather inexpensive daily rate is only a teaser. Next, be careful of where you can or can’t drive the car!! Fabian realized too late after he rented the car that Hungary and Croatia were not included in his insurance package. Because of this we took the train to Budapest from Vienna, as I was quietly insistent that we follow our original plan. To get to Croatia we had to rent another car for a day out of Slovenia. Also, when they offer to give you a nicer car, do the math. Fabian was happy to get upgrade to a BMW but the small daily charge of $10 does add up a bit. I think he was happy driving the BMW though ! – especially through the 28 switchbacks up and down the mountains in Triglav National Park in Slovenia.

Bathing in Hungary.

I think I have reached a surfeit of caving for one life…but I don’t think I could ever have enough hot natural baths! Bring on the spa! While doing my research for the trip I discovered that the borders of Hungary seem to encompass quite a fine piece of real estate for natural hot springs and Budapest has been called the “City of Baths.” This spa tradition in Hungary was accelerated by the Ottoman occupation from the early 16th century to the late 17th century, and while few of the original Ottoman bath structures remain, the concept of the Turkish bath lives on. Fabian and I chose to visit the Szchenyi Baths in the City Park downtown. This is the largest bath complex in all of Europe with a variety of indoor and outdoor pools and all kept at different temperatures. I think my photos capture some of the Old World charm of the tiling and pillars and painted ceilings.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

UNESCO World heritage sites are a constellation of cultural or natural places around the world that have some  historical or physical significance and are protected from demolition or further development. According to wikipedia there are 981 such sites as of 2013 – 759 of them cultural, 193 natural and 29 of them being mixed properties. For a full list check here (what site lies near you?). Plitvice Lakes in Croatia is just such a site and one that I happened to discover through the website “Amazing Places in the World” (check that out too!). I saw some stunning photos from this Croatian park and made a note of determination in my mind to go there. These lakes completely lived up to their hype too. I almost felt like they couldn’t be real; like I was was at Disney World or some such contrived place. Instead of planning your vacation around what hotels you happen to have booked, I suggest you might organize your vacation around sites you’d like to see or experiences you’d like to have. Do your research with regard to this idea and don’t worry so much about accomodations. Booked hotel rooms can also limit your spontaneity should something awesome come by and smack you upside the head. This will make your time much more memorable.

Slovenia. Who knew?

Coat of arms of Slovenia, with a stylized depiction of Triglav

Coat of arms of Slovenia, with a stylized depiction of Triglav

Slovenia, a country I fear a majority of Americans don’t know exists, proved to be a stunning surprise. The eastern Alps extend far into this country and they are much less developed here. Small family farms dot the mountainside. And it feels timeless; you might be living one hundred years ago under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, thirty years ago in the former Yugoslavia, or now as part of the European Union.  Triglav National Park, on the border with Italy, is not all that far from traditional places in the Alps and is well worth the trip!

Heat Transfer

images-6Although you may not realize it consciously, much of your daily effort is in how to take heat from “here” and move it “there.” Your body certainly does this on it’s own, for keeping your internal temperature at precisely 98.6F is quite an orchestration of our warm blooded physiology; any small deviation from this temperature makes a bazillion vital biochemical reactions impossible. Outside of our human endeavor, the indifferent hand of nature acts to move the heat created in the nuclear oven of the sun from “there” to the earth, “here.” One false move any step of the way and we are  goners. The truly extraordinary thing is that heat energy, wherever it is created, inherently wants to dissipate, not concentrate, as it moves from one place to another. This is the law of entropy, one of the fundamental laws of physics; even as you may gather energy in one place, like in the logs in front of your fireplace on a cold winter evening (here), on a larger scale, more heat is randomly dissipated into the wider world (there). It’s an uphill battle. But the transfer of heat, and hence, how we might harness it, is Unknown-3rather simple. There are just three ways: radiation, conduction and convection (or advection). In understanding these three methods of heat transfer you will not just make what was a subconscious event, conscious. You will gain more control over your environment. Let’s look at each of these three.


With only the most minor exceptions, all the energy that is exchanged between the earth and the rest of the Universe is through electromagnetic radiation, a concept, along with blackbodies, which I described in my essay on Fire. Only radiation can travel across the vacuum of space moving energy from one spot to another and at 186,000 miles/second (~300,000 km/sec). Without the energy from the sun, the surface of the earth would be at nearly Absolute Zero (-459.67°F). As it is, with the sun, the earth has an average surface temperature of 61°F (16°C), and why is that? Why doesn’t the earth just keep heating up as it receives more radiative energy from the sun? When something is coming into a pot, but the pot is not filling up, then you know that that something is also leaving in some way. And indeed, that is happening here. The earth is a blackbody – an object that can receive and emit radiation at all wavelengths but that emits most radiation at a wavelength determined by the object’s temperature. The sun, at 10,000°F, sends to earth radiation which is centered on the visible range. The earth, much cooler, reemits this energy back out into space in the lower energy/longer wavelength infrared range. The temperature on earth where the incoming radiation matches the outgoing radition happens to be at 61°F. Should the sun heat up, so would the earth, until it settled at a higher equillibrium temperature and was emitting slightly higher energy/shorter wavelength radiation. You can guess I will be revisiting this idea of an equillibrium temperature when I write a post on Climate Change!

Let’s look more closely at how radiation from the sun is absorbed as it encounters the earth, and exactly where and how this radiative energy is turned into heat energy, raising the temperature. When radiation is absorbed at the atomic level, it can make electrons jump into higher energy orbitals around the nucleus. Radiation that can do this tends to be in higher energy visible to ultraviolet to X-ray end of the electromagnetic spectrum. Radiation can also be absorbed, however, by increasing a molecule’s kinetic energy. “Kinetic” refers to movement, and so when the kinetic energy of a molecule rises it is moving more. It can do this in one of two ways: it can rotate on its axis faster or it can vibrate more (what I have previously referred to as “jiggling”). Causing a molecule to vibrate faster usually occurs at the lower energy levels associated with infrared radiation. Rotational changes are associated with microwave radiation. In any event, this increase in kinetic energy is associated with a higher temperature, and it is the way that radiation from the sun heats the earth. Exactly where in the earth/atmosphere system the various wavelengths of radiation are absorbed is a topic for a full discussion which I’ll address in a post on the “Greenhouse Effect.” Suffice it to say for now, that radiation from the sun passes nearly unseen through the earth’s atmosphere (if it isn’t absorbed or reflected by a cloud, which is liquid) and it is either absorbed at the ground or reflected back into space.

After the earth’s surface is warmed, the infrared radiation it gives off can be absorbed by such asymmetric molecules in the atmosphere as CO2 (carbon dioxide), H2O (water), CH4 (methane) and O3 (ozone), making them vibrate or rotate more, thus increasing their temperature. On a much smaller scale, heat lamps use infrared radiation to heat up the air in a room.

Convection and Advection

The second way to move heat energy around is much slower and less mysterious. Move this hot thing from one place and physically put it in another place. Take warm air from your furnace and blow it into your bedroom. Although all movement of this type is sometimes subsumed under the name convection, convection really refers to vertical air movement, while the horizontal movement of air (wind) is called advection. Convection can occur when advecting air meets a mountain and is forced upward. More often, however, the vertical mixing of air occurs when the temperature of an air “parcel” (imagine an invisible balloon) increases and it expands making it lighter; cooler, heavier air pushes in around it and the bubble of warmer air is again forced to rise.

The heat content of a bubble of air is composed of two types. The sensible heat is the heat that you can feel on your skin and which we regard as temperature. As we have seen, this is associated with the kinetic or vibrational energy found with jiggling molecules. A more subtle form of heat found in the atmosphere is latent heat. In our atmosphere, this is derived from the phase of the water content and would be zero in perfectly dry air. As liquid water leaps from the liquid to vapor state it needs an extra “kick” of energy called the latent heat of vaporization. It gets this from the sensible heat in the atmosphere, so that when water is evaporating into the air, the air tends

Latent heat. Energy "hiding" in the respective phases of water.

Latent heat. Energy “hiding” in the respective phases of water.

to chill. The total energy hasn’t changed; some if it has just been “hidden” as latent heat. As water vapor is condensed into a liquid on the other hand, it gives off this same kick, the latent heat of vaporization in reverse, and it deposits it in the sensible heat of the air. As raindrops form inside a cloud, the surrounding air warms. As the sweat on your skin evaporates it absorbs this latent heat from your body. If the air is too humid for the sweat to evaporate efficiently then it can’t help you cool down. This is why dry desert heat feels less oppressive.

The reason for bringing up latent heat is not trivial. As the wind blows from the tropics, I think it is rather intuitive how sensible heat is moved. However, it is also bringing a great deal of latent heat energy hidden in the water vapor. This becomes manifest as sensible heat when the water vapor releases it as it condenses out as rain. Latent heat, moving around with the atmosphere’s water molecules, is a vitally important factor in understanding the global heat distribution.


Conduction operates on the smallest, molecular, scale. Recall when I have explained how molecules vibrate more rigorously as they receive heat energy and their temperature increases. This kinetic energy can be transferred from molecule to molecule when they collide. If you take a metal spoon and place one end on the coil of a hot electric stove, the heat absorbed by the spoon at the surface of the stove will move molecule by molecule to the other end where your finger is holding it. You will feel this heat as the molecules in your own skin start to vibrate faster. Ouch. Now suppose the far end of the spoon is resting on a piece of dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide, which is at least -109.3°F) instead. Soon your finger will start to feel cold as the temperature gradually falls across the length of the spoon. It would appear that “cold” is moving toward your hand this time, but that is not the case. In fact, heat energy only flows from hot things to cold things, never in reverse. This is best understood, again, by the transfer of kinetic energy. This time the heat is flowing in the opposite direction. Vibrating molecules in the spoon hit the more sedately vibrating molecules in the dry ice, transfer some of their kinetic energy to the ice, and slow down. Again this happens all the way to the end of the spoon you are holding. Here, the molecules in your finger transfer vibrational energy to the spoon and you can feel the temperature drop. In both cases the energy flowed from the higher kinetic energy to lesser kinetic energy.

Heat transfer by conduction is something that we feel often in our daily life. When we are cold and jump into a hot shower. When we are hot and jump into a cold shower. When we hop into bed at night and tense momentarily as our warm body hits the cold sheets. In the atmosphere, however, most heat transfer by conduction dominates in only two places. One of these occurs at about 100 km above the earth’s surface where the atmosphere is extremely thin, and the description is too esoteric for this essay. The other occurs precisely at the earth’s surface. Air flowing less than a centimeter from the ground tends to come to a halt due to friction. When this happens it allows vibrational heat energy to be transferred just like I described above with the spoon. Some materials are better conductors of heat energy than others. If you touch a hot pan you will obviously get burned quickly. But have you ever touched a piece of aluminum foil just out of the oven? No problem! The aluminum molecules in the foil can dance very fast, but they have a difficult time moving the molecules in your finger faster, at least compared to other materials we routinely cook with.

I’ll give a couple of examples to make a clear image. On a spring day, usually when air is being advected from the South, the warmth from the air is absorbed into the snow surface. As the ice reaches 32°F, it melts. The air cools as some of the heat energy it is carrying goes both toward increasing the water temperature and providing the latent heat of freezing to melt the ice. During the summer, the radiation from the sun is absorbed at the ground where it warms the hot tarmac of a parking lot, for example. The surface soon becomes very hot, this time warming the air that comes into contact with it.

Putting It All Together

Test question!

A bird is sitting on a branch in a tree about fifteen feet above the ground on a cool dark night just before dawn. As morning arrives and it gradually gets lighter, the bird, hidden under the leaves, begins to notice that the air around it has started to warm.  Describe the processes which are responsible for warming the air around the bird.

Give it a try!


1. Energy leaves the hot surface of the sun in the form of electromagnetic radiation and travels for approximately eight minutes across the vacuum of space until it reaches the earth. Upon entering the earth’s atmosphere, most of this energy passes directly to the surface where it is absorbed (the blue part of the energy is scattered, which explains why the sky is blue).

2. As the very surface (only molecules deep!) absorbs this radiation, the molecules start to jiggle and the temperature goes up. This difference is sensible to the touch.

3. The vibrating molecules on the surface bump against the air molecules, sharing this heat energy, and they start to jiggle as well.

4. Now the layer of air touching the ground grows warm and expands making it less dense. Less dense bubbles of air leave the ground and convect up into the tree. The bird is warmer.

Water in the Atmosphere

Is this cloud composed of water vapor or liquid water? What's your guess?

Is this cloud composed of water vapor or liquid water? What’s your guess?

Although I previously wrote on the topic of “Water,” here I would like to narrow my focus to specifically on “Water in the Atmosphere.” I am doing this for three reasons. First, it provides a great example from our immediate surroundings where one can explain basic scientific principles in a simple manner to non-scientists. Second, the topic affects us all on a daily basis whether we’ve ever thought about it or not. How can I dry the clothes faster? Why do I sweat? How can I defog the windshield? And where does rain come from anyway? Third, an understanding of the concepts presented here provides a foundation for future posts I’d like to write on hurricanes, the greenhouse effect and global climate change.

Water and Air Together

It is possible that you have heard the concept that “warm air holds more water than cold air.” This is a somewhat misleading and mysterious statement which will become more clear once we actually see what happens when water and air come together. So, we will start by imagining a simple scenario: a closed jar, half filled with water and with perfectly dry air above it at room temperature and sea level pressure (the weight of all the air above you as you stand next to the ocean). I touched on the concept of temperature in my essay on “Fire“, but here I will explain it more carefully. All atoms and molecules around us are jiggling more quickly or more sluggishly depending on how much kinetic energy they each have.  We do not feel these individual molecules though of course. What we experience as temperature, whether we measure it through a thermometer or our fingertips, is an average of the jiggling of the molecules. In the diagram below we can compare curves of how many molecules are jiggling at each kinetic energy level at two different temperatures.

This is a graph showing the distribution of molecular kinetic energy level at two different temperatures. The left (vertical) axis should read "numbers of molecules". Emin is the energy level required for a molecule to jump from the liquid to vapor state. Obviously more molecules have this greater kinetic energy  on the higher temperature curve..

This is a graph showing the distribution of molecular kinetic energy level at two different temperatures. The left (vertical) axis should read “numbers of molecules”. Emin is the energy level required for a molecule to jump from the liquid to vapor state. Obviously more molecules have this greater kinetic energy on the higher temperature curve..

If we warmed the water and air, the whole curve shifts to the right and if we cooled it this curve shifts to the left, as indicated.

[As an aside, if you read my essay on “Water“, you will recall that water is a special molecule with a negatively charged side and positively charged side. The negative side of one water molecule is attracted to the positive side of another water molecule in what is called a hydrogen bond. This kind of bond is so important that it would be worth reviewing in that post.]

Let’s begin and see what starts to happen. The most energetic of the molecules in the water have enough energy to break the hydrogen bonds to their neighbors and “jump” up into the air. These are the molecules indicated in the shaded area to the right of the Emin in the above diagram. Since the air is starting out dry, all the movement of the water will be in one direction: from the liquid water below into the air above. It’s evaporating. Once in the air, however, these “new” water vapor molecules will start colliding with air molecules and with each other, and in so doing will gain or lose some of their kinetic energy. Those that lose energy in these collisions may no longer have enough energy to resist the attraction of the negative or positive charge in the water below and may rejoin the liquid water and form hydrogen bonds again. They will be condensing. This exchange happens for awhile, and as it proceeds, the number of water vapor molecules moving back into the liquid water starts to increase because there are simply more of them. Soon, the number of water molecule moving from the liquid up into the air is equal to those moving from the air back to the liquid. The air is saturated. To us, it appears that evaporation stops, though it is really just a new balance in the movement of water between states. The evaporation rate is equal to the condensation rate. If we were to warm the jar with our water and air, there would be more liquid molecules able to jump up in the air and fewer vapor molecules reconnecting with the water. Instead of saying that the air is “holding more water,” it is more enlightening to realize that a new equilibrium is being established with more molecules in vapor form.

At the lower temperature on the left, equillibrium between evaporation and saturation is established with fewer water vapor molecules in the air than than at a higher temperature, shown on the right.

At the lower temperature on the left, equilibrium between evaporation and saturation is established with fewer water vapor molecules in the air than at a higher temperature, shown on the right.

Inside the closed jar, with the pressure steady and the temperature stable (unless we decided to change it), the air eventually became saturated. But in the real world this balance of water molecules going from liquid to vapor and vapor to liquid cannot be established so easily. There may not be a swamp or pond or lake or ocean below the air to act as a water source. The temperature of the water or “parcel” of air may change. We take the top off the jar, drier air blows in and, once again, more water molecules will be jumping up into the new, drier, air.

Ways to Measure the Amount of Water in the Air

So, how does one define how much water is in the air? What ways will be most useful?

Relative Humidity

“Relative Humidity” is the term we are most used to hearing on the weather report, so let’s start there. The amount of water vapor in the air compared to the air itself is not all that great, especially when you compare how differently very humid air feels compared to dry air. It is usually somewhere between 2 and 6 grams of water to one kilogram of air (~4 gm water/1000 gm air). It the warm tropics this number can approach 20 gms of water to one kilogram of air. This measurement is called the mixing ratio.  In our ideal example with the jar, we saw that the air became saturated and that the point at which this happened depended only on the temperature and the need for a water source nearby. The ratio of the mass of water vapor at saturation to the mass of the air is the saturation mixing ratio (duh!). In the real world, the actual mixing ratio might be well below the saturation mixing ratio.  As I noted above, there might not be a good water source nearby and our air parcel might be blowing all around over land or up in the sky. In fact, the air even over the ocean is rarely at its saturation point. Relative humidity is an attempt to describe how close to the saturation point the air is at. The way this is done is by determining the ratio of the the mass of water in the actual air to the mass it would potentially have at saturation (x 100 to give a percentage).

Relative Humidity = (actual mass of water in a parcel of air/potential mass of water in the air) x (100)

You can imagine that if the relative humidity is low, the potential evaporation rate is high. This is useful in telling us how quickly our clothes will dry or whether our sweat will evaporate.

Dew Point

Dew point is another useful measure of water in the atmosphere. Instead of telling us how close to saturation the air is at a particular temperature, it tells us the temperature at which the air would become saturated if you didn’t change the amount of water vapor in the air.

Dew Point: The temperature at which the condensation and evaporation rate of water vapor are equal and the air is saturated.

Remember the condensation rate increases relative the the evaporation rate as the temperature cools. If I tell you the dewpoint is 50 degrees, I am saying that, given the amount of water in the air, dew will start to form on the grass at 50 degrees. If the temperature does not fall below 50° F, no dew will form. You can see that dew point is an indication of how much water is in the air, but not how much evaporation exceeds saturation.  The actual air temperature is usually above the dew point. If the dew point were higher than the actual temperature, the condensation would exceed evaporation, the water vapor would exit the air and form a cloud or form drops on some other surface. Since this is the only real measure we have of the actual amount of water in the air, it is very useful to predict how much rain could potentially fall. An air mass with a dew point of 65°F contains fair more water vapor than an air mass at 45°F.  This is something you can now understand when floods are predicted and you see that, indeed, the dew point is high.

How to Make a Raindrop.

There is one thing I failed to mention in the first part of this post which I must now bring to light. I said that the water in the jar will become saturated when the number of water molecules moving from the water to the air is equal to the number moving from the air to the water. But, this is saturation with respect to a flat surface of water. The temperature at which evaporation and condensation rates are the same are different with respect to a curved surface of water!

Huh? Where would one ever encounter a curved surface of water, why would it matter, and would it matter much? Well, I obviously already gave it away in the title to this section. CurvedvsFlatsurface_0002A raindrop is where you would find such a curved surface of water, and to understand how raindrops begin to be formed in the first place, this difference is important. We are going to go back to our old friend, the hydrogen bond, and for this I have drawn a visual aid shown above. In this diagram I have drawn both a flat surface of water (jar, lake, ocean) and a curved surface of water (a raindrop) with two water vapor molecules jiggling over them. This time, however, I have drawn imaginary links (in red) between the charged halves of these molecules to the charged halves of the molecules in the liquid water. These are the electromagnetic forces trying to draw the water vapor back to the surface to reform a hydrogen bond. With the raindrop notice that the liquid water surface curves away from our water vapor molecule, and hence, the forces wanting to pull it into the raindrop are farther away. The strength this electromagnetic force decreases with distance (by the square of the distance to be exact). So, the smaller the water droplet, the harder it is for it to pull in more vapor and grow. This means that the dew point with respect to a curved surface of water is lower than with respect to a flat surface. In fact, as the volume of the droplet shrinks to near nothing, it’s ability to gather more water vapor molecules also shrinks to almost nothing. Even when the air is far below the dew point with respect to a flat surface of water, water will not condense into the raindrop, but will stay as vapor. In this state of affairs, we say the air is supersaturated.

So how does a water droplet get started? This takes something called a condensation nuclei which is nothing more than a fancy name for a dust mote. Almost anything can serve as such a dust mote: soot from a chimney or forest fire, dead phytoplankton from the ocean, clay from a dust storm, sulfates from volcanic activity, perhaps even Whoville. The condensation nuclei acts as a proxy for a flatter surface. This is especially true if this nuclei has a bit of a charge itself and water molecules find themselves attracted to it. As the tiny drop grows larger around this nuclei, it’s surface becomes flatter with respect to the water vapor molecules and condensation happens more easily (the extremely low dew point with respect to a curved surface approaches the more environmentally likely dewpoint of the flat surface).

In the air this usually happens when air cools. For reasons you can’t be expected to know from this post, rising air cools. And soon as this cooling, rising air reaches its dew point temperature, fewer water vapor molecules have the necessary kinetic energy to remain as vapor and will condense onto the nearest surface of water. This is how a raindrop is formed. You may have noticed how condensation forms on the outside of your cold drink on a hot humid summer day. The surface temperature of the glass is far below the dewpoint temperature of the air. Shake some of the drops on the glass off onto your face. You just made it rain.

Clearing the Fog off your Windshield

So let’s see if you can use what you learned here to help you in a real life scenario. You live in Seattle and it is a rainy January evening and the temperature is 45F (6C). You have the windshield wipers on but that’s not helping much because the windows are fogging up from the inside. So, you turn on the  heat and aim it toward the windows and circulate the air just within the car to try and dry the windows off (surely, the air in the car is drier that the soggy air outside!). But strangely, that just makes it worse!

What’s going on?

Now you are wiping the windows with your hand to be able to see outside. You stop at your friend’s house to pick them up and a strange thing happens. When you open the door and they get in, a cold damp gust of wind blows in and the windows clear a bit. You open the window a crack. Now you are going to experiment like a scientist. What if you change the source of the heated air blowing on the windows to outside air instead of recirculating the warmer inside air? All this is working wonders. But it’s all very counter intuitive. Blowing cold damp air at the window clears them up? If you want to keep thinking through this problem, don’t read below.

What you have done is to confuse relative humidity with dew point. It seems drier in the car because the relative humidity is lower, while outside the car the relative humidity is nearly 100% and there are even foggy patches. Outside the car the air is nearly saturated with water vapor, inside the car it is not. On the outside, the evaporation rate equals the condensation rate, but on the inside the evaporation rate is greater than the condensation rate. Indeed, judging by relative humidity, the windows should clear up with the windows closed.  But at 45F, the air outside has a much lower dewpoint. Since it is foggy out you can see you are nearly there at 45F. Much of the water vapor in the outside air is already condensed out. Inside the warmer car the dewpoint is higher, perhaps 65F. There are many more water vapor molecules in a given volume of air on the inside compared to the outside. The mixing ratio is higher.

So, why does the relative humidity matter less than the dew point? Because the glass on the windows is much cooler than the other surfaces on the inside of the car. It is chilled from outside. The water vapor molecules do not condense on the seats or on your hair. They condense on an object less that the 65F dew point.  Bring in some of that lower dew point air in from outside!

Why Do We Sweat?

In my essay on Water I explained that breaking a hydrogen bond, and going from liquid to vapor requires an extra bit of heat energy called the heat of vaporization. This heat energy is sucked away from the molecules in the surrounding environment, which tends to cool the environment. If this evaporation is water on your skin, your skin will cool. Recall that evaporation will happen faster when the relative humidity is low. In a desert, with very dry air, your sweat will evaporate rapidly, helping to cool you off. In a tropical setting with high relative humidity and a low evaporation rate, your sweat just sits there doing nothing. It can’t cool you if it can’t evaporate. This is why 95F in the desert feels much less oppressive than 95F on a muggy day. This same heat of vaporization is released back into the environment during condensation. This can be significant where condensation is occurring quickly like inside a thunderstorm. Stay tuned.

Last Bit of Trivia

At the beginning of this post I posed a question under the photograph of a cloud: Is the cloud composed of water vapor or liquid water? I hope you will now guess correctly that the cloud composed of tiny drops of floating liquid water. Water vapor is completely invisible to the human eye. But there was another plausible guess. What about floating ice? There is an easy what to tell if a cloud is composed of floating drops of liquid water or floating specks of ice. Clouds composed of liquid water droplets tend to have clear boundaries. The drops evaporate rather quickly in the unsaturated air outside the cloud. But ice, with very much less kinetic energy, does not evaporate so easily. They tend to live longer outside the cloud and they give the cloud a “wispy” look.

Can you see which part of this thunderstorm is composed of liquid water drops and which is composed of ice?

Can you see which part of this thunderstorm is composed of liquid water drops and which is composed of ice?

Old West Loop

Science and Religion

The subject of “Science and Religion” is images-3obviously monumental. They are arguably the two greatest influences on western civilization, and a full discussion of this topic could take volumes. What I really intend to do here is something smaller in scope: to discuss the differences in how religion and science pursue knowledge. This encompasses a branch of philosophy called epistemology – what is knowable and how do we know it? But if I put “epistemology” in the title, I think, perhaps, that no one would read this. So, please don’t stop!

From our modern day perspective, both religion and science have a body of knowledge about the world, things that are believed to be true, and both of them have their own method of acquiring this truth. Is this knowledge and are these methods necessarily in conflict? This was certainly not always the case, for it has just been in the last few hundred years that study of divine causation and natural philosophy have begun to dissociate.  Now that the methods of modern science have been well honed, and it’s discoveries are often found to be in apparent conflict with traditional religious knowledge, what is the contemporary nature of this difference? Can the two be reconciled? Why  does the scientist fight with the theologian, often inside the same mind? The idea that science and religion are inherently inimical, is sometimes referred to as the warfare model of the science vs. religion debate, and it is historically a rather modern concept. In response, some have advanced the “separate realms” opinion that some knowledge of the world is best left to religious methods and some are best left to science. In this second thesis, any conflicts that arise are merely “border transgressions” between the two realms and should be resolved by putting each question back in it’s proper place.

As I said, in this essay, I will choose to deal with the methods that science and religion both employ in acquiring knowledge, rather than any specific knowledge each claims. For example, “how do we determine the age of the universe?,” rather than “what is the age of the universe?”

How Modern Science Acquires Knowledge of the World

With science, we first receive information through our five senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste – which I’ll refer to as sensory perceptions or observations. An immediate or firsthand observation is what is often called “empirical evidence.” Many philosophers (they would be “empiricists”) think that all beliefs must be founded solely on this information; they discourage the notion of innate ideas and prefer a posteriori (after the fact) knowledge to a priori (before the fact) knowledge.  On the contrary, purely “rationalist” philosophers distrust empirical evidence, often because they distrust our senses, and prefer knowledge that is gained only through logical thought. Nearly all scientists since the beginning of the scientific revolution, however, incorporate both empirical knowledge and the tools of rational logic and language. They use both in a process that is now known as the scientific method. The scientific method involves a few simple steps.

The Scientific Method

Question. All scientific knowledge starts with empirical observations about something in the world and a human sense of wonder. Why is fire hot and why does it flicker? What makes water turn to a solid? Why does the moon stay up in the sky? Why are some peas smooth and some wrinkled?

We all perform experiments. Even babies.

We all perform experiments. Even babies.

Hypothesis. Once we have a question we’d like to pursue, we gather all previous knowledge about the topic (the first scientists had little of this!) and we construct a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a guess as to why something happens. It explains the behavior of something you see in the world and it predicts that if I do this thing I think that thing will result. Certain things can make a hypothesis more, or less, impressive. For example, we would hope that we could not explain the result as something purely coincidental. But this much is vital: it must be falsifiable! It must be possible to prove yourself wrong. If it is not, then it is not possible to test it, which is the next step.

Experiment. Then we construct an experiment to test this hypothesis. A good experiment is as simple as possible so that other factors outside the hypothesis itself are minimized and whose effect on the result can be estimated. For example, using fewer instruments ensures that broken and miscalibrated instruments will lead to errors. Also, the result must be clear and easy to interpret. It won’t help if you already know beforehand that it is going to be difficult to analyze the results. Importantly for this particular essay, note that the results of the experiment are perceived through your five senses.

Analysis. The tools of rational logic and language are used subtly throughout the scientific process, but especially when analyzing the results. It is important that we know what is a valid conclusion and what is not, lest we commit a logical fallacy. Our analysis of the experiment will reveal that one of three things has happened. The result may contradict the hypothesis, whereupon you are back to square one. The result may be completely unexpected, which is interesting, and you are also back to square one. Or, the result may confirm your hypothesis. If that happens it is important not to get too big a head yet. Importantly, other people must be able to repeat your experiment. An experiment that can’t be replicated is worthless. Also, it is a good idea to test the hypothesis from another angle to see if the results are robust. Sometimes the results might necessarily vary slightly each time the experiment is repeated, as would be the case with particle physics, and a statistical approach is necessary to verify or falsify the hypothesis.

After a hypothesis is tested through different experiments many times, all verifiable, and with consistent results, it becomes theory. A theory is more than a fact. A theory is an explanation of how facts came to be. One example of such a well tested theory is the theory of evolution. Darwin’s original hypothesis was logically and internally consistent, but that was not enough. It had to be proven true in nature. Experiments from geology, paleontology, atmospheric science, chemistry (carbon dating), zoology, environmental biology, developmental biology, and now, very importantly, molecular biology, all yield consistent results. To be tested from so many angles without contradiction is a best case scenario for a theory.

It seems that religion is something that resulted from evolution. It's complicated.

It seems that religion is something that resulted from evolution. It’s complicated.

Well  tested theories are something we start to hang our hat on. They are ideas we have about how the natural world works. We  act as if this idea, the original hypothesis, were true, and then, using rational logic, construct new hypotheses.  This can seemingly carry us far from our original sensory, empirical, experience. We originally saw light with our eyes. We carried out experiments on light, for example, to test increasingly more complex hypotheses about it until we came up with a theory of electromagnetic radiation. Each experiment along the way had to somehow yield results that could be experienced through our senses even as the phenomenon we were studying lay beyond our senses. Eventually we began to have such a thorough understanding of microwaves (long wavelength light that we cannot see), that we could develop technology that uses them.  We believe what we have learned about microwaves because we have been able to make machines using them that when they heat our food we feel the warmth on our tongue and when they transmit signals through our cell phones we can hear the sound in our ear.

In summary, here are the really important points regarding how science acquires knowledge of the natural world:

  1. All information is received directly or indirectly through our five senses before applying the rules of logic.
  2. All hypotheses must be falsifiable.
  3. Anyone can repeat an experiment and expect the same result. All experiments have to be reproducible. The entire process can be clearly communicated to another human being starting at (1).
  4. From simple theories. more complex ones are derived. Technology proceeds.

How Religion Acquires Knowledge of the World

A discussion of how religion acquires knowledge is more difficult than science, because religious experience is so varied. In some cases this knowledge is acquired by scripture and the church hierarchy and in others it is acquired by revelation. Let me explain.

Some religions are established, like the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions that have had so much influence over western civilization. These religions each have their own political structure, religious practices, scriptures, and theology (a methodological discourse on the nature of God, God’s actions and relationship to  the Universe).  Ancient scripture within these organized religions is sometimes taken to be the most legitimate primary source of  knowledge, and theology by church leaders, is the proper means of extending this knowledge. This  method of acquiring knowledge of the world is sometimes referred to as faith. But faith, when so narrowly defined as this simple acceptance of scripture and church leaders, is the mere “suspension of disbelief .”  And suspension of disbelief, by definition, is not an epistemological method of gaining knowledge about anything. It is simply intellectual laziness. For this reason, I do not consider scripture/church leader centric “faith” to be germane to the purpose of this essay.

More interestingly, and more broadly across all varieties of religious experience, faith is considered to be revelation, epiphany, or the grace of direct knowledge of God’s existence and force in the Universe which bypasses the five senses and is perceived directly by the consciousness. It is a kind of sixth sense. To a Christian this might be a “born again” experience and to a Buddhist it might be an “enlightenment” experience. It might be felt in prayer. Some claim to walk with this “sixth sense” always alive in their mind, while others feel nothing.

It is important to stress here that revelation is the only direct means of experiencing God. There is no direct knowledge of God that is discernible by our five senses. God cannot be seen, heard, felt, tasted, or smelled. You might hypothesize that the thoughts in your brain or the propagation of light or the initial creation came from God. But if you want to prove the existence of God through science, the hypothesis must be testable and verifiable. But no one, so far at least, has been able to conduct an experiment whose results could only be explained by the presence of God even indirectly, and which could then be replicated by someone else.

So, now we come to a crucial point: this means of acquiring knowledge of “God” is an entirely personal affair. Many of you may have read my “Welcome” page to this blog and are aware of my fondness for the term “Nullius En Verba”. This was the Seventeenth Century motto of the Royal Society of London (one of the first and greatest scientific organizations)  and it abjures a person to think for them self. Do the experiment yourself. Observe the world for yourself. Do not uncritically take on another person’s ideas or experience as your own. Unfortunately, a revelation cannot be transferred from one person to another. There is no way to convince another person to have the same revelation that you have had. They might be excited into an religious ecstasy, God may choose to bestow upon them the grace of sudden knowledge of the divine, but there is no telling whether this experience is the same as yours. This is the fundamental difference between knowledge obtained through the five senses and confirmed via the scientific method and knowledge gained by faith. Religious knowledge is not transferable in any philosophically rigorous way.

Does this show that religion, using faith, cannot yield knowledge of the Universe?  No it does not! It simply shows nothing outside of the person who was “graced”. For the person who has had a moving religious epiphany the experience may prove quite convincing. They may suddenly see the evidence of their five senses through quite a different prism. Suppose I have a friend named Nikolai who is a passionate atheist and who believes that the scientific method is the only method of finding out something new about the world. You are hiking through the mountains with him when he unfortunately steps into a beehive and is attacked. He is allergic to bees. He quickly goes into anaphylactic shock and his heart stops. But you, being quite logical and prepared, pull out your epinephrine filled syringe and AED (automated external defibrillator) and manage to get his heart started once again. Upon opening his eyes, what a story Nikolai has to tell! He saw a bright light through a tunnel which he was compelled to follow. He was surrounded by the incorporeal spirits of his loved ones that have passed. He knows and understands everything. And above near-death-experience-1
all, he feels a more profound love than was ever imaginable to him before. After making sure he has fully recovered, you suggest that maybe what he experienced was an artifact of what happens to a brain when deprived of oxygen. “No, no NO! That was NOT what happened to me. I saw something real. There is, in fact, something beyond this world. There is a God! I saw Him!”  And from that day on, Nikolai no longer fears death and he believes in God. Well, what do you make of this situation? Nikolai was not mentally unstable. He was a natural skeptic, yet he changed his mind in a matter of minutes. Do you just accept Nikolai’s experience as the truth even though you have a nagging doubt about oxygen and the brain? Certainly what happened was impressive.

The question of what to make of another person’s unverifiable revelation strikes at the heart of what it means to believe in something. The topic of “Belief, Doubt and Uncertainty” is easily large enough for a post of it’s own, or a whole book. Put simply, however, for things that lie beyond the evidence of the five senses, outside the hand of  experiment and the scientific method, we must choose to believe, or not, to a matter of degree, forever held in a kind of intellectual limbo or until we have our own epiphany. For such supernatural things, only when we need to take action based on this belief is it necessary to take a position (knowing you could be wrong) and that doesn’t happen very often. We may believe in an afterlife a bit more after our harrowing hike with good friend skeptical Nikolai, but Nikolai’s words cannot convey his experience.

In summary, here are the really important points regarding how religion acquires knowledge of the world:

  1. Belief in something because it is written down somewhere, or because someone told you, is not a valid epistemological reason for believing anything.
  2. Belief in something through revelation, outside the five senses, is personal and cannot be conveyed by mere words.
  3. Supernatural “beliefs” can be considered more or less “plausible,” as in agnosticism. Natural beliefs about the world accessible to our senses can be investigated and found to be correct or incorrect.

So, Should Science and Religion be at War or Not?

The reason I have focused on the two different ways science and religion acquire knowledge is because I think this holds the key to finding peace between these elements in our society that seem to be at war with each other. Where the five senses rule, the scientific method is preferred. If you need to get the ice off your windshield, determine how not to get a sunburn, discover new drugs, calculate when the next high tide will come, figure out why you can’t sleep, or what plants grows best in your garden soil, the scientific method is the only route to getting the answer. You make hypotheses, experiment, and cooperate with your neighbor. And it isn’t helpful to pray for a revelation to solve these practical problems of this world we are all now living in. On the other hand, if you are wondering about the meaning of your life…who can tell you what to think? For some, revelation might indeed be helpful and all they can do is relate their story. Others may find your story interesting, or not. So, if there is a “separate realms” concept of where science and religion should each rule, it comes down to how you acquire knowledge and how you share it. This is why I have focused on their different epistemologies.

Nikolai has the best answer. He respects your reticence to “believe” as he now does. He was in your shoes. You respect his enthusiasm for a “higher” world. In this world, you will share a common approach, science. In the privacy of his own mind he knows that you are loved beyond imagination. In the privacy of your mind you wonder if Nikolai suffered oxygen deprivation. You continue to buy season tickets to the football game, or ballet, together.

One of two bumper stickers on the back of my car.

One of two bumper stickers on the back of my car.

Belize and Guatemala

Critical Thinking: Common Informal Fallacies, Part 2

thinkingcapwhoaThanks for continuing in this discussion of critical thinking and the most common informal fallacies. Recall that informal fallacies occur when we are making arguments using inductive reasoning where the conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premises because some new information is implied. This is often the kind of argument we need to make in real life, both with others or even inside our own self.  What we hope for are conclusions that are strong and likely to be true and we can do this by avoiding informal fallacies where we don’t deal with the facts properly. In the first post on this subject, I explained fallacies of presumption where the facts are misused. Here I will discuss two other categories of informal fallacy: fallacies of relevance, where at least one of the premises is unrelated to the conclusion, and fallacies of ambiguity where the language is too obscure.

*Recall that none of the examples or cartoons here necessarily represent my own opinion. This is a caveat I shouldn’t have to make after this next section!*

Fallacies of Relevance: A Premise is Unrelated to the Conclusion

Here I will illustrate four different ways we can come to irrelevant conclusions by basing our argument on unrelated statements or facts.

Ad Hominem (just attack the advocate’s general character, not their argument)

The words “Ad Hominem” are Latin words meaning roughly “from human,” and all of the fallacies like this result from attacking/praising the character of the person who promotes the idea instead of
evaluating the idea itself.

I love this cartoon for the simplicity!

I love this cartoon for the simplicity!

If reasoning against an argument seems too hard, then just attack the person! This happens all the time  and comes in many flavors. You might actually attack the source of an argument which could be more than a single person, such as an organization, a nation, or a religion, and this would be the “genetic” flavor of ad hominem; it might be enlightening to study the history of how an idea gained acceptance, but it’s nevertheless irrelevant to its validity. The “abusive” ad hominem occurs when one tries to lower our regard for someone and therefore anything they would say, by hurtling insults at them, accusing them of moral transgressions or by some other means making them look ridiculous. The “circumstantial” flavor is close to this, only in this instance we are sowing seeds of doubt by questioning a person’s motives; yes, a person’s circumstances might give them a vested interest in the outcome of a situation, but does that mean one can never think or act unselfishly? I’d hate to think so! “Tu quoque” (in Latin, something like “look who’s talking”) is an ad hominem flavor whereby one attacks a position by accusing the advocate of hypocrisy. But you do it too! She doesn’t practice what she preaches! We all know that two wrongs don’t make a right. And also, just because I’m throwing out a bunch of cliches here doesn’t mean that avoiding cliches isn’t good writing policy. Finally, let’s not forget the “halo” effect flavor. In this type of ad hominem an idea is considered reliable or sacred simply because of the source. My Mother loves Oprah Winfrey and so do I. But to hear my Mother tell it, the woman can do no wrong. I’m quite sure Oprah herself would object to this. Last, but not least, there is something called “Poisoning the Well”. In this flavor of ad hominem one attacks a person’s credibility. If they have lied in the past then they could be lying in the present. As with all the others, however, this is irrelevant. We judge the present idea on its own merits.

Example of a genetic ad hominem: No boy scout would ever lie because “to be honest” is part of the boy scout oath and an important tradition of scouting since their inception.

Example of abusive ad hominem: Why would anyone listen to what this man has to say about gun control or global warming or anything else? He spent three years in federal prison for tax fraud. Isn’t that enough?

Example of circumstantial ad hominem: Of course Senator Levin supports the auto bailout. He represents Michigan, home of the “Motor City”

Here we have the Tu Queque ad hominem, with a bit of the genetic flavor thrown in.

Here we have the Tu Queque ad hominem, with a bit of the genetic flavor thrown in.

Example of  Tu Queque ad hominem: Who is she to be against abortion? She had one herself when she was twenty.

Example of Poisoning the Well: This woman lied about her employment history on her resume. She lied about the number of children she had at the welfare office. Why should we believe who she says was driving that night?

Appeal to Authority

With this type of informal fallacy, one  justifies their idea by appealing to some source with a claim to expertise or inside knowledge. If anyone has read my welcome page, they would know that this kind of fallacy is particularly odious to me. My personal motto is “Nullius in Verba” which basically means’ “by no one else’s word.” A part of this illogical ploy is an attempt to get you to doubt your own judgement or feel inadequate to understanding the intricacies of the issue. Either because of a lack of self esteem  or intellectual laziness, people are too often willing to to just believe or do what the big guy(s) says. The reason this is a logical fallacy of course, is that even an expert can be wrong in a particular thing. The authority might be anyone from a single individual to some type of organization to simply cultural tradition. I happen to have a fair degree of expertise on the issue of climate, but when I try to press my opinion on climate change I make sure to never offend the intellect of  the person I’m talking to by saying “because I said so!” If the point happens to be too complex for the time allowed I don’t expect them to agree with me until after I’ve given convincing evidence which they can think through for them self. I am continually appalled by the number of people who just go to their doctor and do whatever they are told. Apparently they are unaware of the huge diversity of opinion that exists on almost any topic in the medical community. Not only is your doctor fallible (because she is human), but why assume her values align with your’s, not to mention that she is not the one to have to live in your body once she walks away. No one can advocate for yourself like you.

Example of an Appeal to an Authority of One: For a millennium and a half, Aristotle was deemed to be the greatest authority for all natural knowledge. But as great a philosopher as I personally agree that he was, he made one giant mistake that held back progress for centuries:  that experimentation is flawed because any artificial intervention in nature will alter the natural result. This looks like a small error, but it was not. It had a large effect on the history of scientific and technological progress. So many intuitive ideas we may have about the world are shown to be wrong (for example, for something to keep moving we need to keep pushing it, correct?) when we actually do an experiment and make measurements. It wasn’t until Galileo stepped up, questioned the great Aristotle, and tested Aristotelian truth that science began to lift itself out of the scientific darkness.

Example of an Appeal to a Group Authority:  For centuries people have allowed the Catholic Church to speak for their own conscience in the face of their God. This concession of personal intellectual autonomy grew until the Church controlled all aspects of life. One could even pay the Church to have sins removed (!); who was actually God? It’s probably no coincidence that the Reformation occurred synchronously with the publication of the first  mass produced typeface Bibles so that people could read “the word of God” for them self.

Example of an Appeal to Traditional Authority: It is generally assumed that the best

How often do we just let the authority of tradition dictate our beliefs without questioning them?

How often do we just let the authority of tradition dictate our beliefs without questioning them?

environment to nurture a committed relationship is within the institution of marriage. This is true to the point that married people are bestowed special rights and privileges. Some people are aghast that this venerable institution is “threatened” by including homosexuals who were traditionally excluded. But is marriage really the best way to nourish a relationship? Why is the divorce rate so high? Why do so many people think more about the flower arrangements at a Wedding ceremony rather than the vows exchanged? My point here is that it is not logical to just assume a previously accepted tradition is the one that will be right for you.

Fallacies of Ambiguity: Unsound Conclusions Result from Misuse of Language

In the case of Fallacies of Ambiguity we arrive at sketchy conclusions because we have not maintained clarity and consistency in our language. This seems like an error that would be easily discerned. However, the shift in meaning or the twist of grammar can often be subtle making it difficult to find the problem – especially when we have to think fast. The best way to avoid this lack of clarity is to make a habit of always being aware of how you arecwln3219l.jpg using language yourself. Do you ever change the definition of a word mid-argument? Are you careful to define your terms before an argument begins? Our
reasoning often becomes confused because we do not even start on the same page. There are many types of Fallacies of Ambiguity. Here I will discuss four: Equivocation, Amphiboly, Hypostatization, and Division/Composition.


With equivocation, a single word or short phrase has two different meanings, and this meaning shifts at least once in the course of the argument. A person may actually use this device to accuse you of inconsistency, when in all actuality, they are the one who sre being inconsistent with the way they define their word(s).

Example of Equivocation: “You say you believe in the miracles of science, so why do you reject the miraclesblackboard_equivocation%5B1%5D of the Bible?” If you are not clear about how the words are defined, you may feel like you’ve been tricked. The “miracles” of science refer to the astonishing achievements that scientists have made toward understanding the natural world. The “miracles” of the Bible refer to something else entirely – to the events which defy those very laws scientists seek to understand. Since it is the word “miracle” which connects both premises to the conclusion, if you change the meaning of this connector, the conclusion fails entirely.


Amphiboly occurs when poor grammatical structure causes the meaning of a sentence or short paragraph to become ambiguous. This can end up being very humorous, and lots of late night talk shows use these errors from newspaper headlines or classified ads for comedy segments. A few examples of these grammatical errors might be:

dangling modifier example: (Dangling modifiers are phrases describing the subject, except that the subject is missing. This is probably because the writer thinks the subject is too obvious and doesn’t need to be made explicit.  But is easy to just grab on to the next best noun. This can make the sentence nonsensical.) “Walking around the zoo, the monkeys were screeching madly.” No, the monkeys were not walking about the zoo; that would be the children. It should read: “Walking around the zoo, the children saw the monkeys screeching madly.”cgr0556l.jpg

ambiguous antecedent example: (Ambiguous antecedents are when pronouns don’t match up to the nouns they are supposed to replace.) “If your DOG does a POO, please place it in the trash bin.” Does “it” refer to the dog (poor puppy!) or the poo?

not using enough words: “Just in. Spring Blouses for Women with 12 – 14 necks.” “Dead Wife Says Husband Kept a Loaded Gun” “Puppies for sale. Come quick before they disappear!”

While these examples were funny, amphiboly can be used for more devious purposes. This is why when we are testifying in a court of law we swear to tell not just “the truth” but also “the whole truth” (you can’t leave important facts out) and “nothing but the truth” (no part of your testimony can be a lie).

Hypostatization (or Reification)

This fancy sounding fallacy is actually a fairly simple concept. Hypostatization is when we treat an abstract concept as if it is a real thing. This is often a case of anthropomorphizing an inanimate object (“Love will find a way,” “Nature abhors a vacuum,”Let the market decide.”). In some cases hypostatization can be helpful in understanding a concept or expressing a poetic idea. Speaking of the free market as having an “invisible hand” is a colorful metaphor that helps to understand how supply and demand seem to balance out when prices are allowed to change. We don’t actually think the market has a hand. But in other cases hypostatization can be malevolent, as when someone declares that “nature” deems some races to be superior and then goes on to justify slavery or extermination. The racist uses “nature” to divert attention from their own hateful self.

Now that I’m finished discussing fallacies, what fallacy does the following cartoon describe?jmp060307l.jpg

None that I can tell. I just think it is hilarious!

Do you have a “favorite” fallacy I left out? Please tell.