Gaussling’s 15th Epistle to the Bohemians. Thoughts of a Secularist Liberal Scientist.

If you knew me personally, you’d know that as a reductionist my profile can be reduced to that of a liberal atheist scientist with marginally good manners. I broke the shackles of magical thinking in high school after reading a few books by Bertrand Russell and Carl Sagan. Though I have not been the same since, I have come to sympathize a bit with Quakers and their predilection for peace.

My religious upbringing was quite ordinary for a young Iowegian lad in the 1960′s. Confirmation in the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) in 8th grade followed by a short stint as a reluctant acolyte. The church seemed firmly footed in bedrock as an institution and adept at indoctrinating the young. In catechism studies I tried to understand the authoritarian system that is outlined by Martin Luther and the strange collection of narratives that make up the King James Bible.

There were abstractions that didn’t make sense then and are still a mystery to me today. The concept of the Holy Trinity always seemed suspiciously anthropomorphic. Then there is the crucifixion as a kind of “ghostly sorting mechanism” for salvation. It stands out against the backdrop of natural phenomena like physics and biology- mechanistic systems which seem to suffice for everything else. Finally, there is God’s seemingly endless requirement for worship and admiration which has always struck me as a vanity unnecessary for a supreme being. The whole scheme reeks of iron-age anthropology.

I remember the day it happened. I was praying for something or other. Trying to have a little spiritual time with the Big Guy. It finally dawned on me that I was talking to myself and in doing so, wishing for some particular outcome to happen. All those years. Praying and wishing were indistinguishable. I’ll admit, I was never one to volunteer a lot of praise to God. Heaping praise on a deity seemed patronizing and wholly unnecessary. Surely if God could elicit wrath, then he’d certainly pick up on being flattered.

Well, in the end, so what? Another tedious atheist commits apostasy. Like most people in US culture, my moral basis was built on what has been described as Judeo-Christian morals or ethics. It’s hard to avoid. But just as the earth does not rest on a foundation, I am not limited to sensibilities derived only by the sons of Abraham in a far earlier age. My culture and my brain tell me that theft, murder, and the other spiritual crimes (sins) are bad for the common good. That respect for others has a pleasurable and sensible aspect that threats of eternal damnation do not improve on.

The reductionist in me can’t resist the following assertion. Deistic religion reduces to cosmology. In the end, a religion offers a theory of the universe. It is a kind of physics that defines relationships between the prime mover and his (?) bipedal subjects imbued with mystical sensitivities. It claims to define the outcome of the disposition of a soul, whatever that may be.  I don’t even believe in the existence of the mind, much less a soul.  As a form of physics, religion lacks means by which theories can be tested. Quantitation of a spiritual element is an idea that has yet to see practice. It seems to lack predictive capability to estimate an outcome that can be validated. It is definitely not a science. It is not about matter or energy. It is about how to conduct ones life against a backdrop of divine authority and within a box of behaviors.

But our brains seem to be constructed in a manner such that religious/spiritual notions are nearly irresistible. Billions of people have claimed to feel its draw and testify to its merits. The projection of anthropomorphic imagery in myth is common in diverse cultures.  The Abrahamic religions congealed from cultures that were apparently unaware of the concept of zero. Where heaven is death with a plus sign, hell is death with a negative sign. To an atheist death is just zero. It has no sign or magnitude. It is unconsciousness and devoid of the awareness of pain or pleasure. Zero sensory processing. It is neither exaltation nor agony. Just zero. Entropy prevails. Such an outlook is hardly appealing enough to gather followers. It is grim and without hope of graduation to eternal bliss.  The take home lesson is to live in the moment, not the future.

Who am I to argue with millennia of religious thought? I don’t know. All I can say is that even as a cancer patient, I remain refractory to the pull of religious and mystical thinking. So it was and so it is.

Post script.

Divinity students! Relax. I’m no threat to your faith. My conclusions on this life of ours offers no ceremony and precious little fellowship. I can say that I’ve had an eye-full of the clockwork of this universe. Adherence to evangelical doctrines could not have provided the amazing insights. And for that I have no regrets.

American Idiopath

I recently developed a condition where I have ear pain and partial facial paralysis. Ear aches I can deal with, but when my face quits working, I go to the doc. So, that’s what happened. The ENT said that it resembled Bells palsy and the cause was idiopathic.

I can just imagine an attending physician and a resident in medical school taking future idiopathic specialists on their rounds. The doc walks in and greets a patient with an ear ache and a face that doesn’t work. “Yessir” he says with resignation, “another case of idiopathic syndrome. We just don’t know what the hell happened.” The resident turns to the med students and says gravely, “Look at this patient closely. Try not to confuse the distant stare and slack jaw with idiopathic disease. Even though this patient is from Iowa, we are convinced that there is an idiopathic condition overprinted on his presentation.”

The attending physician stands there thoughtfully for a moment, raises a bristled eyebrow and glances at his watch. “Let’s go people. The idiopathology wing is full of patients with mysterious conditions.” With that they shuffle off down the hall.


A round of acyclovir and prednisone cleared up the apparent Bells palsy. I am symmetric again and can pucker up to whistle a tune.

On the 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol Spill

The fouling of public waters in West Virginia by 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) is regrettable and my heart goes out to all of the families whose lives have been and are disrupted by the spill. In my judgment the descriptions of the substance found in Wikipedia and ChemSpider seem very evenhanded given what is known presently about the toxicology of the substance. The SymBioSys LASSO numbers found in ChemSpider are reassuring in the sense that the structure of MCHM does not line up well with the receptors in the list. The low scores are suggestive of substrate mismatch with these receptors based on calculation. That is a good thing. So is the relatively high flash point of 80 °C.

There are several uses of this substance. At the large scale its use has been patented as a frothing agent for coal beneficiation (US 4915825). That patent is now expired. It is useful for separating coal particles from inorganic mineral particles. Other uses include the preparation of ester derivatives to produce plasticizers either as a stand alone ester or, as a listing in SciFinder shows, a hydrophobic co-monomer.

From what I have heard in the media, the secondary containment failed, allowing material to discharge into the nearby river. This is easy to figure out. A visual inspection by plant EH&S should have noticed failure of the secondary containment during periodic inspection and flagged it for repairs. The US Chemical Safety Board is investigating and will eventually publish a finding.

It seems to me that the people of WV must be willing to publically demonstrate en mass if anything is to change there. The lack of regulatory oversight on facilities like this is not surprising. It is exactly as intended by the power brokers of the state.

Lithium Fires

Ran into an interesting recommendation on fighting a lithium fire in Joshi, D.K., et al, Organic Process Research & Development, 2005, 9, 997-1002.

In addition to the usual admonitions on the handling of a reactive metal like Li, they warned that water, sand, carbon dioxide, dry chemical, or halon should not be used. Rather, they suggest dry graphite or lithium chloride instead.  This seems quite reasonable to me, having reacted both silica and CO2 with magnesium powder in chemical demonstrations in a previous life. If Mg will reduce SiO2 and CO2, then hot/burning lithium ought to be reactive as well.

A similar recommendation is given in Furr, A.K. CRC Handbook of Laboratory Safety, 5th Edition, p. 299, ISBN 0-8493-2523-4.

Comments on the cable TV series “Gold Rush”

I’m a fan of Gold Rush on the Discovery Channel and have been since the beginning. Aside from the producers constant over-dramatization and spreading the content a little too thin over the time block, I’d have to say that my main criticism would be with the miners themselves.

What I would throw on the table is the observation that there is a troublesome lack of analytical data supporting the miner’s choices of where to dig a cut. The few episodes where core samples have been taken, useful data was obtained and decisions made therefrom. But the holes were paid for grudgingly and the range covered too miserly. A sufficiently capitalized operation would be sure to survey the ore body and make the decision to bring in the heavy equipment on the basis of data.

Obviously they have been chronically short of capital for their operations. Fortunately for them, over the last 2 seasons they have been able to upgrade their wash plants, trommels, and earth moving equipment. Must be the TV connection.

But I suppose it is the very lack of capitalization that forms the dramatic basis of the show. Without scarcity there would be no drama. Without the conflicting personalities and dubious decision making there would be only a documentary on gold mining.

I have to imagine that the recent collapse in gold prices will get folded into the dramatic context in the next season.

I truly wish Parker Schnabel, the Hoffman crew, and the Dakota boys the best of luck in their efforts. What the viewers can’t see are the 10,000 details and problems that remain on the editing room floor.

Chemical Process Development

Lots of semi-batch process development and safety work going on in my lab. We use our reaction calorimeter for a variety of studies now. Naturally we want to know about energy accumulation with a given feed rate or any unforeseen induction or initiation problems in a reaction. We can also home in on recommendations for safe feed rates of reactants into a reaction mass.

What I am beginning to learn from the RC1 work is that running a reaction at low temperature is frequently done for sketchy reasons. Unless there are selectivity or side product issues, you really have to question why the reaction is specified to be run at low temperature. I think some of it comes from habit gained in grad school.  Low temperature may introduce dangerous situations with abrupt initiation by accumulation of unreacted reagents. Or it may lead to overly long feed time with the associated costs of added plant time and labor.

There are reagent incompatibilities like nBuLi in THF above – 15 C or so. But you’ll find that MeTHF is a bit more tolerant of temperature than is THF.

The precise temperature management capabilities (Tr) of an RC1 including the ability to lock on a temperature or precision ramping gives insight on solubility questions or on freezing points. The instrument also provides heat capacity data for engineering calculations. it is a very useful apparatus.

A Big Bronx Cheer for the 2014 Jeep Cherokee!!

The makers of Jeep have resurrected the standard Jeep Cherokee in, well, how else can I say it … a very stupid way. They have abandoned the classic boxy utility vehicle lines of the old Cherokee in favor of the now popular fat and squat ellipsoidal lines of contemporary design. In other words, it looks like a jelly bean or rugby ball.  The classic 4.0 Liter Cherokee had power to spare and it had the fantastic visibility of an inverted fish tank. It had troubles too, namely bad electric connectors and perhaps an under-designed cooling system. But at least it had the classic squared-off Jeep lines and lots of traction.

But the greatest sin of all was abandoning the 4.0 L straight-6 engine for the 3.2 L engines. Jeep?? WTF!! What were you thinkin’? I would love to meet the committee of marketing pencil necks and constipated MBA’s responsible for this one. It’s a travesty.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 96 other followers