Category Archives: Cosmos

Tempest in a Teapot. Philosophy-v-Physics.

A minor snit has broken out between outspoken physicist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University and, well, the philosophers of the world. Krauss has become a darling of the cable TV world of NatGeo and the Science Channel. It seems that you can’t swing a dead cat without knocking over the same dozen television astronomer/cosmologists and quantum physicists. This rotating crew of scientists are filmed on various locations straining to explain the universe in terms of string theory, dark matter, and quantum wierdness using language with a Fog Index of 8 or less.

I’m not slighting these folks in the least. Using the English language to convey the essence of these concepts is difficult, as is preventing the reflexive use of the remote control by viewers with the attention span of a house cat.

Anyway, Krauss has managed to inflame those philosophers who pay attention to popular science.  His latest book, A Universe from Nothing: Why there is Something Rather than Nothing, has precipitated this argument. I don’t care about the merits of his argument here. The reader is invited to dive in.

What I am writing about is the social and intellectual mistake Krauss made. Like all physical scientists, he is a reductionist. The drive for a ToE, Theory of Everything, is the ultimate act of reductionism. His assertion that philosophy is obsolete in the face of discoveries in physics and the emergence of big subassemblies of a ToE has been received with dismay by philosophers.  A large fraction of people (adults, anyway) are hardwired to be receptive to mysticism and no amount of handwaving, no matter how logical and crisp, is going to cause the bell curve to skew substantially away from cherished mystical beliefs.

Krauss has fallen into the same trap as those in the 19th century who may have declared that physics was pretty much complete with Newtonian mechanics. While quantum mechanics provides a template for the description of how particles behave constrained to a region of space, it fails as a replacement for philosophy. That is, quantum mechanics and cosmology do not provide any concise analysis on how people should treat each other, how to conduct a worthwhile life, or how to interpret what the meaning of quantum mechanics is in your life.

This is the realm of philosophy and religion and these kinds of questions must be freshly examined by each generation born into this strange universe. The meaning of existence is not yet settled science.


Today I found myself peering at the lovely lavender glow of opaque argon plasma through the viewing screen of a gleaming new instrument. The light-emitting 8000 K plasma sits apparently still alongside the conical metal skimmer. Somewhere a Dewar was quietly releasing a stream of argon into a steel tube that was bent in crisp military angles into and through walls and across the busy spaces above the suspended ceiling. Another cylinder quietly blows a faint draught of helium into the collision cell. A chiller courses cooled water through the zones heated by the quiet but savage plasma. Inside a turbo pump labors to rush the sparse gases out of the mass analyzer and into the inlet of the rough pump and up the exhaust stack.

Up on the roof, the heavy and invisible argon spills along the cobbles of roofing stones until it rolls off the roof onto the ground where the rabbits scamper and prairie dogs yap. The helium atoms begin their random walk into space. The argon shuffles anonymously into the breeze and becomes part of the weather.

All of the delicate arrangements; all of the contrivances and computer controls in place to tune and play this 21st century marvel. And a wonderment it is. The ICPMS obliterates solutes into a plasma state and then taps a miniscule stream of the heavy incandescent argon breath that trickles into the vacuous electronic salsa dance hall of the quadrapole.  All the heat and rhythm for the sake of screening and counting atomic ions. What a exotic artifact of anthropology it is. And it all began in a rift zone in Africa millions of years ago.

Our Family Atheist and the Religious ToE

So it turns out that I am the family atheist and liberal. The social awkwardness and philosophical incompatibility of this condition was evident the other day in a discussion with a family member that diverged into a shouting match. In fact the immiscibilityof my liberal atheist proclivity with my family’s generally Christian conservative foundation has severed ties with a few family members outright and distanced others. My father, deceased nearly a decade ago, never reconciled with his son’s atheism. In his view, it was a choice inevitably resulting in existential tragedy and damnation into the darkest recesses of infinity.

My wife is a Methodist and our kid is being raised under that umbrella. I have taken the position that I will not indoctrinate my child in the analytical consequences of atheism. Rather, the adoption of a philosophical position on existence is a self-guided adventure everyone is entitled to. Whether one is lead deep into the doctrines of the Abrahamic religions, eastern philosophy, or the uncertain swamp of agnosticism, it is the right of all people to come to their own conclusion on the matter of ones place in the cosmos.

I claim that this is a right.  But many otherwise liberty-loving people disagree.  They view indoctrination into the religious fold as a kind of rescue. It is a dash across the finish line that must to happen well before death to ensure that the soul is channeled into the chute leading to paradise.  Once in this enviable condition, the ethereal community of souls can eternally heap praise upon the diety directly rather than across that impenetrable supernatural discontinuity that is resistant to all but the force of prayer. Or so goes the core theory of the Abrahamic religions as I understand them.

To many religious followers, the very fact that their religion is ancient seems to validate the accuracy and veracity of their ideas. The mere continuity of these doctines seems to confer some hopeful message about the vital truth of the doctine.

But I would counter that what continues over time is not the cosmic accuracy of the idea, but rather the psychological consequences of brain physiology.  Architectural features of the brain and the behavior of neurons therein have produced self-awareness. The self-aware brain enables much possibility for an organism.  An effect of our self-awareness is that we come to experience time.

But the very familiarity of self-awareness of the human brain might lead it to assume or calculate that self-awareness is a common condition in the external world. It seems to easily conclude that the apparent organization of the world was conducted by a central organizing influence- a diety. Moreover, it is not unreasonable for the self-aware brain to assume that it’s own self-awareness is part of a continuum of awareness or consciousness. The notion that self-awareness might extinguish would be inconceivable.

I think that what the ancient religious texts and doctrines convey is a kind of familiarity. It is a shared experience of mystery, uncertainty, and fear through the common experience of consciousness. The brains of our ancestors communicated through the agency of language their chronicles of hope and fear to our brains which share the the same strengths and weaknesses.  It is this commonality that rings the bell of truth in our self-awareness. It reinforces the mystical experience as a physiological experience because it is fundamentally that. 

What is inevitable about our self-awareness is extrapolation. Religion soon mutates from a personal mystical experience to a theory of physics and politics. This is what I cannot accept- Religion as a political template or as a ToE  (Theory of Everything).  

Many people come to value alignment to doctrine as a higher calling than the application of love and charity to their fellows who have lost their way or have experienced bad luck or tragedy. I would offer to the reader that what makes a person liberal is the priority choice of people over the politcal doctrine of social Darwinism.  

We in the USA have confused economic theory with reality. Economics and business are a subset of sociology. The alleged congruence of economics to morality or metaphysics is a political theory some people have asserted because it serves their purpose in the allocation of wealth.  It’s a part of their ToE. And I’m here to say that some of us can see what they’re doing.

Geysers of Enceladus

My day job requires that I can practice the art of calorimetry with some reasonable extent of expertise, so in that vein I have been cracking open some of my dusty p-chem texts and revisiting basic thermo.

The other day while on an excursion to a bricks and mortar bookstore to pick up some of my favorite periodicals (Kitplanes and Vanity Fair), I happened upon a copy Elements of Chemical Thermodynamics by Leonard K. Nash (1970, Dover, $12.95). Feeling bad for Borders and their current run of poor luck, I bought the book as though it would make some difference.

Figure 2 on p 5 (below) shows a schematic of a ice calorimeter.  An ice calorimeter uses a thermally isolated enclosed space M completely filled with liquid and solid water immersed in an insulated tank of ice and water B. The internal, thermally isolated, working volume of water has two important features- it has a small volume sample container R protruding into it and it has a calibrated small inside-diameter expansion capillary C. 

A sample in container R is in thermal contact with reservoir M.  Heat absorbed in M melts some ice and results in the loss of low density ice and the formation of higher density liquid water. The net volume of the contents then decreases and is registered as a column height change in capillary C.

Given the volume change and knowing the density and heat of fusion of water at 0 C, one can calculate the heat absorbed by the reservoir.

So, what about Saturn’s moon Enceladus? The moon is thought to be covered by water ice with liquid water underneath. It’s reasonable to assume that if some volume of water below the ice transitions to the solid phase then the collective volume for liquid water is decreased resulting in an uptick in pressure.

If this happens, it could provide a mechanism for the geyser phenomenon witnessed by the Cassini probe. The geyers could simply be a result of PV work energized by gravity and radiative cooling of the surface and subsequent thickening of the surface ice into the underlying liquid phase.

I’m sure the boys and girls at Cassini have thought of this, but since I’m not tied into the literature I have not heard anybody express it.

Large Hadron Rap

Let’s try it again-

Martian Swamp Gas

According to recent reports, space scientists using infrared spectrometers at observatories in Hawaii and Chile have detected low levels of methane in the Martian atmosphere. This finding is consistent with results from as far back as 2003 when several studies reported methane at approximately 45 ppb.  Observers performing the latest work conclude that the observed methane must be of recent origin, given the short half-life of atmospheric methane due to photodegradation. 

The connection of these findings with the possibility of past or present life on Mars has proven irresistable. I’m sure there are group leaders beavering away at mission proposals this very moment based upon these findings.

An explanation that is much less exciting and much more challenging in regard to grant proposals is the abiotic explanation. Here on earth there we have a lesser known and widely overlooked abiotic theory of hydrocarbon origin. Abiotic hydrocarbons are often referred to as primordial and are known to exist in planetary atmospheres elsewhere.

According to John S. Lewis, Physics and Chemistry of the Solar System, 2nd edition, 2004, Elsevier, Inc.,  p. 159, the mole fraction of methane in the atmosphere of Jupiter is 0.001 and for Saturn it is 0.002.  The mole fractions of water are 0.001 and 0.002 respectively. Among heavy atom species, only ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, neon, and argon approach these levels within a factor of 0.5 to 0.1.

Oxygen and carbon are two of the most highly abundant heavy atoms and to see them richly represented as their respective hydrogen compounds isn’t so surprising.

At some point in the formation of the solar system, atomic carbon and atomic hydrogen were cool enough to collide and form molecular methane.  Hydrogen with its larger mole fraction would be expected to dominate bond forming interactions with carbon atoms, forming H-saturated methane.

Given the abundance of methane in the gas giants (and don’t forget the methane atmosphere of Titan)  it is hard to discount that Mars has trapped methane in the vast interstitial spaces of the interior of the planet. Methane is known to form clathrate structures with water, so perhaps the proposed underground reservoir of Martian water is comingled with methane.

I believe we should be exploring Mars. But I am increasingly uncomfortable with this stream of “Entertainment Tonight” titillation coming from NASA in regard to the possibility of life on Mars.  Perhaps our culture isn’t as advanced as we assume. Space exploration has always had a large political prestige component to it. Contractors need new contracts and politicians are always keen to bring funding to their districts.  If it takes our lesser angels to make it work, then so be it.


Interested in building an astronomical observatory in your hometown? Have a look at Observatory 101.  No pictures, but because I know the parties in the article, I can certify that there are excellent bits of advice for those keen on building a community observatory. Remember, square buildings are easier to construct than round buildings. It’s a rectilinear world.

What does it take to be in the upper few percentile in life? No, really. What does it take? See what Malcom Gladwell thinks about it. Plan to set aside 10,000 hours.

Tired of people incessantly humping your leg wanting this or that? Check out this USB accessory. If this is too much for your puritanical sensibilities, try the USB aroma therapy gadget and chill out. Check out ThinkGeek. Lots of cool stuff.

Are you torqued about the Lieberman situation? I know I am. So yell at somebody about it.

Quit whinin’ about yer pathetic cell phone coverage and get ta buildin’ yerself sumkinda antenna to boost the gal’ durn signal.

Blanchard sells gold coinage for those flush with cash.  Load up on Krugerrands.

Need the straight dope on radioisotopes? Check out the list of monograph at the link.


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