Thursday, September 29, 2011

La Mirella Mia

While on the topic of cobalt, I remembered my early fascination for another thing cobalt: the Campagnolo Gruppo Cobalto. If you don't know, Campagnolo SPA is the the name of an Italian high end bicycle component manufacturer. Campagnolo (Campy) parts dominated the high-end bike component markets for years until the Japanese moved in on them, offering more for less. But Campagnolo still led in form plus function.  Here is a photo of the Cobalto brake set I coveted but never owned.

In 1979, I bought a 10 speed bicycle called a Mirella. Here's a link showing what one used to look like.  Mine was gold and not blue. Same chrome lugs. Mafac brakes. I rode that bike 15 miles a day, weather permitting, commuting back and forth to campus. I also rode it around Dane County and around the lakes on weekends.

I crashed the bike once on University Avenue going over some railroad tracks. The front wheel came loose and I planted the fork in the asphalt. I cracked my forearm in the fall but managed to carry the bike back to State St. where I worked before seeking medical attention for myself (the bike was more important to me). The guys at the old Yellow Jersey Coop on State St. were able to straighten the fork for me and a month or so later I was at it again, biking all over Dane County.

Years later I had the original paint stripped and added braze-on fittings for the front derailleur, water bottle cages, and brake line guides across the top tube. I had it painted a bright Italian red. I also upgraded the components with Campy Super Record brakes and a gorgeous Campy Chorus aluminum crank (I still have the original three-pin Campy crank made of chrome-plated steel. I tried to sell it once on eBay but no takers). I also added front and rear Chorus derailliers. And a Cinelli stem. The only thing original (besides the frame) left on it are the high flange Campy hubs and the drop-outs which are part of the frame and thus non-negotiable.

Somebody vandalized my Mirella in Denver. They took the Campy Record quick release skewers, the Super Record brakes, and they were working on taking the seat post. Bastards. I suspected someone in the apartment building because the bike was in a security locked basement at the time.

Here's photo of it now, stowed up in the rafters in the garage. It still works fine:


Real 10 speeds are so 70's.

The Very First Guinea Pig?

Commenter Ritmo's link to the wiki article about dioxin mentioned guinea pigs, which reminded me of Lavoisier, who may have been the first scientist to test theories using that animal. Lavoisier famously taught that combustion was the combining of oxygen with other elements, overthrowing the older notion of phlogiston which I wrote about here.

According to the OED of etymology, the first recorded use of the term guinea pig in a scientific context dates from the 1920s. However, the following description of the work of Lavoisier and Laplace clearly antedates that usage: link to original

Lavoisier's respiration experiments invalidated the phlogiston theory despite protestations from Priestley and Scheele. Lavoisier collaborated with French mathematician Pierre Simon de Laplace (1749 -1827) on problems in respiration chemistry. Their vital experiments with guinea pigs in 1780 first quantified the oxygen consumed and carbon dioxide produced by metabolism. Over a ten-hour period, they collected approximately 3 g of carbonic acid from an animal breathing oxygen. In a second experiment, they placed a guinea pig into a wire cage, which in turn was placed into a double-walled container. Ice packed into the double walls of the outer container maintained a constant temperature; ice between the cage and the inner wall of the container melted because of the animal's body heat. During 24 hours 13 oz. (370 g) of ice melted. Lavoisier and Laplace concluded that the total heat produced by the animal equaled the amount heat required to melt ice. In their own words:
Respiration is thus a very slow combustion phenomenon, very similar to that of coal; it is conducted inside the lungs, not giving off light, since the fire matter is absorbed by the humidity of the organs of the lungs. Heat developed by this combustion goes into the blood vessels which pass through the lungs and which subsequently flow into the entire animal body. Thus, air that we breathe is used to conserve our bodies in two fashions: it removes from the blood fixed air, which can be very harmful when abundant; and heat which enters our lungs from this phenomenon replaces the heat lost in the atmosphere and from surrounding bodies.
...animal heat conservation is thus largely attributable to heat produced by the combination of humid air inspired by the animals and dry air in the blood vessels.

Lavoisier's ideas were radical for 1780 because they connected heat, work, and energy.

Real Life's a Beach (cont'd)

[fixed some typos and missing words]

It appears then, that the decision to buy Times Beach was motivated in part by the Reagan administration's concern about the EPA's image of inaction. Furthermore, the action was in part necessitated by the need to aid utterly destitute flood victims. The question remains then of assessing the danger of dioxin exposure.

How dangerous is dioxin to humans? The answer seems to be that nobody really knows. The claim that dioxin is one of the deadliest substances known to man is based on its extreme toxicity in guinea pigs. [16] No human deaths have yet been reported. Other animal tests, particularly in rats, clearly show that dioxin is a potent "carcinogen," but scientific opinion is divided as to whether it can cause cancer by itself or whether its only action is to promote cancer in cells that are already cancerous. Evidence for cancer in humans is far from conclusive. The American Medical Association's Advisory panel on toxic substances summed up these findings in an October, 1981, report:
There is little substantive evidence for the many claims that have been made against dioxin and related compounds. While suggestive, the data from animal toxicity studies are not necessarily applicable to man. [17]
Yet the Times Beach exposure may represent the greatest long term exposure to dioxins in history and as such will be looked at closely. The government is trying to resolve the uncertainties with a wide variety of epidemiological studies that will cost more the $100 million. If dioxin is the hazard that some believe it is, the costs of moving entire towns probably are not greater than the risks of letting people continue to live there.
[16] Rebecca L. Rawis, "Dioxin's Human toxicity is most difficult problem," Chemical and Engineering News, 6 June, 1983, p. 37.

[17] Robert Signor, "Dioxin effect on humans seems mild so far," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 5 Dec., 1982, sec A, p. 1.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Ritmo may be too young to remember this...

...but I remember it well:

Real Life's a Beach (cont'd)

This is a continuing series which began here

News of the dioxin contamination at Times Beach came at a tense time for the EPA. Administrator Burford was under intense pressure from Congress to yield any documents which would reveal whether the agency had been lax in enforcing hazardous waste and Superfund laws. Burford maintained that she was under instructions from President Reagan not to turn over certain documents to Congress because they might jeopardize on-going court cases against waste producers. [11]  In early February, 1983, EPA assistant administrator in charge of waste clean up and Superfund, Rita Lavelle, was fired by President Reagan amid allegations that she had used the Superfund for political leverage in favor of Republican candidates. Lavelle allegedly told Missouri officials not to push too hard for compensation on dioxin problems there because "that will be playing right into the hands of Ted Kennedy." [12] It was this aura of political scandal which led The New York Times to charge that the Missouri dioxin case "has been shaped at every turn by politics, not public health." [13] Pushed perhaps a little faster than she would have been otherwise, administrator Burford announced February 22, 1983 that the federal government would buy Times Beach "to ensure that that public health is protected." [14]

The buy-out decision was reached on Monday, February 20, in a telephone conference between Burford, Lee M. Thomas, head of a Presidential Task Force on Times Beach, and an official at CDC in Atalanta. The White House welcomed the decision on the part of the EPA, and Presidential aides said they expected the decision to be viewed as a positive example of how the agency can function. Prior to the decision, the White House received almost daily reports and President Reagan had been briefed weekly on the affair. This interest was credited with speeding the decision. [15]
[11] Margaret W. Freivogel, "EPA denial of Dioxin File assailed," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 3 Dec., 1982, sec A, p. 1.

[12] Maureen Dowd, "Shoring up a shaken EPA," Time, 7 Mar., 1983, vol. 121, p. 33.  At Lavelle's Senate hearing, which this article reports, Lavelle denied saying it. But Theodore Bernstein, a Missouri State official who was at the meeting, commented: "She said it. I was a little flabbergasted."

[13] One EPA Buy-out is not a Policy," an editorial, The New York Times, 25 Feb., 1983, sec A, p. 30.

[14] Environmental Protection Agency, Press release, 22 Feb., 1983 R30.

[15] Gerald Boyd, "White House pressed hard for decision," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 23 Feb., 1983, sec A, p. 1.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Real Life's A Beach (cont'd)

This is a continuing series which began here

Beginning around December 3, 1982, heavy rains caused the Meramec River, which flows by Times Beach, to flood. Waters crested at 22 feet. Times Beach was hardest hit and most of its 800 buildings were heavily damaged. But as the water receded most residents began to move back to rebuild what remained of their homes. Federal flood insurance was created to help homeowners and businesses to rebuild after such flood disasters. Two years previously, though, Times Beach had become one of the few communities in the nation to be suspended from the program because municipal ordinances had fallen short of new government specifications. A town meeting had been held to explain what changes were necessary including a raising of all buildings by 18 feet. [8] "It would have been economically and physically impossible to comply," said a town attorney. [8] This meant that no federal grants or loans would be available to repair damaged homes or businesses. Residents got this news the same night that they learned that private tests had shown potentially harmful levels of dioxin in Times Beach. Missouri's Governor Bond, who had been pressing EPA to approve a buy-out of six homes at the Minker/Stout site, now urged that if official test results showed high enough dioxin levels, Times Beach should be bought out as well. [9] An editorial which appear in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch summarized Times Beach resident's plight:
Grants for temporary housing and for replacing lost furnishings are available from the Federal Emergency Management Fund. Aid for rebuilding in the flood plain is not available. Loans for rebuilding in other areas may be available from the Small Business Administration (commercial structures only) and other federal programs. But the resident's chief concern - the loss of their homes - can only be met by some sort of buy-out. [10]
[8] "2 Towns along Meramec lack U.S. Flood Insurance," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 7 December, 1982, sec A, p. 4.

[9] Janice Long, David J. Hanson, "Dioxin issue focuses on three major controversies in the U.S." Chemical and Engineering News, 6 June, 1983, p. 23.

[10] "Disaster at Times Beach," an editorial, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 28 Dec., 1982, sec A, p. 1.

Real Life's a Beach (cont'd)

This is a continuing series which began here

Scientist at CDC, with few clues to go, took until 1974 to identify dioxin as the toxin in the oil. By this time Bliss had sprayed oil over as many as 150 sites in eastern Missouri including over a quarter of a million gallons of tainted oil on the streets of Times Beach. The search for these contaminated sites, though, did not begin immediately. At the Verona plant, which had since changed hands, investigators found a storage tank containing waste oil 100 times more contaminated than Bliss's oil. This became the primary concern because its potential for human health injury was highest. At their own expense, the new owners had the wastes detoxified. [6] And with no further reports of serious illnesses, the dioxin issue faded.

It was believed in the 1970's that dioxin decomposed rapidly in soil. Acting on an anonymous tip in 1979, EPA investigators found a number of dioxin contaminated drums near a Verona plant which had lain buried for over six years. Waste leakage from the drums still had high concentrations of dioxin when almost all of it should have decomposed. This got officials to thinking about what had happened to the contaminated soil which had been removed from the horse arenas. After three years of record searching, EPA officials learned that some of the landfill had been used as fill dirt for residential construction. Analysts collected soil samples at the original sites, at the landfill and at the residential sites. Testing by CDC began in the spring of 1982, and the first data released in August showed that dioxin levels had not diminished. [7] These findings prompted more exhaustive sampling by the EPA of all areas known to have been sprayed by Bliss, including Times Beach.
[6]  At this time no federal guidelines existed for the clean-up of such waste sites. Superfund, the abandoned waste site clean up law, didn't go into effect until 1981.

[7]  Janice Long, David J. Hanson, "Dioxin issue focuses on three major controversies in the U.S." Chemical and Engineering News, 6 June, 1983, p. 23. Up until this time, all attention and concern was focused on the original sites and the residential sites, the so-called Minker/Stout sites named after two families owning homes there.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Real Life's a Beach (cont'd)

This is a continuing series which began here

The compound dioxin is one of a family of related compounds which results as an unwanted by-product in the making of several widely used chemicals. While the compound can result naturally, [2] Missouri's dioxin, and thus Times Beach's, have been traced back to the production of the herbicide 2,4,5-T, the defoliant used in Agent Orange, and to the chemical hexachlorophene, once used in the antibacterial PhisoHex. [3]  In November of 1969, the North Eastern Pharmaceutical Chemical Company of Verona, Missouri, began producing hexachlorophene. Dioxin containing wastes were properly disposed of until 1971 when, allegedly to save money, the company hired Independent Petrochemical Company to haul away its waste oil. Independent, in turn subcontracted the job to Russell M. Bliss, a waste oil hauler from Frontenac, Missouri. Bliss transported 18,500 gallons of oil containing dioxin from the plant, which he then mixed with oil from other sources. [4] He sprayed half of the tainted oil to control dust on his own farm and three horse arenas in eastern Missouri. The consequences were severe. Over the next few days and weeks at least 65 horses, a number of smaller animals and uncounted wild birds died at the three stables an on Bliss's farm. The six-year old daughter of one of the stable owners developed an inflamed and bleeding bladder after playing in the arena and an adult complained of skin lesions after exposure to the stables. Investigators from the State of Missouri, reasoning that something must have been in the oil, obtained samples and sent them to CDC in Atlanta for analysis. Bliss was asked if anything had been in the oil - "We were told only that it was used oil. They (Independent) sent me a sample in the mail. I hope my soul rots in Hell if I'm lying." [5]
[2] Scientists at Dow Chemical Co. argue that many naturally occurring combustion processes produce small but measurable amounts of dioxin.

[3] This product was taken off the market, then reintroduced without hexachlorophene under the name pHisoderm.

[4] Janice Long, David J. Hanson, "Dioxin issue focuses on three major controversies in the U.S." Chemical and Engineering News, 6 June, 1983, p. 23.

[5] Laszio K. Domjan, "Handler of dioxin oil is leaving business," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2 Dec., 1982, sec A, p. 1, quoted therein.

Real Life's a Beach*

On February 22, 1983, in an unprecedented move, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that the United States Government would buy the entire town of Times Beach, Missouri. The EPA decided that the action was necessary after the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released completed analyses of extensive soil sampling in the area and warned that the hazard posed by dioxin contamination was "a continuing threat to the health of citizens of the community." [1] An examination of the Times Beach incident, however, shows that the action resulted from a more complex sequence of events of which dioxin was but a part. The presence of dioxin at Times Beach though, points out problems our scientific and regulatory system have in handling the undefined hazards of potentially dangerous substances like dioxin.
[1] Environmental Protection Agency, Press Release, 22 Feb. 1983, R30.

* I dedicate this and the subsequent multi part continuations to the generation of men and women chemists who lost their jobs or never had jobs, in part to overzealous and fear based tactics. I originally wrote this series as a single unpublished piece of journalism. I consider the story well sourced and it was vetted by a University professor at the time. I don't have electronic links to many of the original sources, but they are there, if need be.

Conversations With Ritmo

Blogger will not allow me to post comments on my own blog as "chickenlittle and so I'm posting my response to Ritmo's question here. This is a huge pain and I don't like this, but I refuse to post as "anonymous." ]

Ritmo: Q. Should we not exercise the precautionary principle and, instead, take it on the "faith" of our industrial over-lords that this ignorance and exposure is a good thing?

Me: My gripe is a general one. Since the 1970's, the so-called environmental movement has had the upper hand in the public arena of debate. Company after company has lost the right (privilege) to manufacture in the US until, finally, at long last, industries have decided to move elsewhere.

Yes, the issue of dioxin was overblown. The rhetorical hand played was one of fear--fear of the unknown--and as it turns out, dioxin is not the the most toxic chemical known to man. Yet what was the lay person to think after being fed misinformation? How far do lay opinions go in determining things regarding chemical manufacture?
Watching Althouse gives me hope that anti-business leftists can be confronted and opposed. What's happening in Madison need to occur at other levels.  Instead of cursing and hating the wealth makers, we need to encourage them.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Conversations With Ritmo

[This is a continuation from the comment thread back here]:

Me: The public trust and opinion of DoE at this point speaks for itself.

Ritmo: I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree. I must have far less faith in how well educated most Americans are on matters of science to endorse public opinion of a science agency, as a whole, as a meaningful mark of its performance.

Me: I'll concede that the average American is unaware of the damage Chu is doing. Hell, most people wouldn't even recognize him or any other previous DoE Secretary.

[pause to swig beers]

Ritmo: I simply don't understand why an industry - especially an industry with a financial stake in how a scientific matter is decided - should be privileged in determining a regulatory agency's decisions. They have the least reason for objectivity of any party.

Me: The litigious nature of our country would see to the extinction of such polluters well before any agency need intervene.

Ritmo: I don't agree. Litigation benefits from harms that are very damaging, immediately observable and intensely personal. (Makes for a better narrative in front of a jury, I suppose). If the costs of a small scale harm, pollutant, toxin, etc. are spread out over an entire population, over a very long period of time, the harm is ignored, the harm is conflated with natural, pre-existing risks, the harm is allowed to be seen as normative, and then allowed to be increased based on a higher threshold level of damage now becoming the new norm.

Me: I was thinking more along the lines of Erin Brokovich in California. The alleged culprit in that case, hexavalent chromium, was present in wells and drinking water in CA. Cancer deaths were alleged.  Yet chromium VI has no aqueous carcinogenicity. Like asbestos, is an airborne, inhaled threat. (BTW, have you ever toured the USS Missouri or the USS Midway? Asbestos throughout--everywhere inside because the inside of ship has lots of hot water and steam flowing around and the ship fitters just wrapped everything in asbestos.  Nowadays, to make it a non-airborne threat, it has all been clear-coated with a polymer.  But I digress.
So the Erin Brokovich story (a story of legal greed) is based on fraudulent scientific claims.  If there were a waterborne threat from Cr(VI), the EPA (not just California) sure as hell would have slapped some limits on it.
Another favorite environmental overreaction: Time Beach, Missouri. Dioxin was once alleged to be the most toxic chemical known to man...not true!  That Ukrainian politico ate a ton and survived. I've followed this incident since around 1982, though I haven't kept up on it.
Third, taconite tailings in Lake Superior.  This is a bit dad used to bemoan how taconite tailings clouded the waters around Silver Bay, Minn, around where taconite is processed.  Reserve Mining Co. dumped the tailings into the water until 1977 when an injunction forced them to dump it back on land. In my opinion, Reserve Mining should have returned the waste ore products back to where the removed it from, unless the item of commerce was the bulk of the material.  Yet the Reserve Mining Case decision was decided in part on fraudulent claims of cancer!

Ritmo: Public, common resources, are therefore especially prone to degradation - despite our crucial reliance on them. This probably argues for more vigilant oversight over such resources than over private property, given the lack of stakeholders with a solely personal interest. Organizing class action suits is hard enough. Organizing an entire society around these more easily hidden harms, damn near impossible.

Me: The litigious nature of our country would see to the extinction of such polluters well before any agency need intervene.

Ritmo: Since it seems we may be getting into a discussion on the best way to regulate the commons, negative externalities, etc., the collapse of fisheries might be a better example. Recent (dare I say "ground-breaking") economic research has been recognized in this field. The basic idea seems to be that important long-term interests and short-term goals may often be at odds with each other, and balancing them out doesn't always fall best under the purview of a single party.

Me: Care to expand upon that?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Sheer Brilliant Lunacy

Bargain was a track from Who's Next and was allegedly inspired by Pete Townshend's spiritual guru, Meher Baba; I think the lyrics work just as well substituting a woman or a true love.

I put the video up to call attention to an outstanding piece of drumming by Keith Moon which I've never heard equalled. It's the part here where he comes back to close the song. Listen to how Moon pedals a bass line with both feet! He played double bass drums and perfected bass drum triplets, evident throughout the whole album, but most conspicuously there. You can hear John Entwistle dabbling in and out, accenting Moon's shin-cramping pedalled paradiddles.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Can You See The Real Me?

This is a very favorite Who song from Quadrophenia (1973).  It's one of just a handful that I used to spend hours trying to mimick as a teen.  I'd wear headphones and blissfully play along, trying to get every Keith Moon chop down. I once told that to somebody more talented than me: "Well that wasn't being very original, was it?" The withering disdain stung, but now, years later? pffft, whatever. While I take the point about originality (and our garage band did have nascent originals), copying your betters is important too.  I wrote about how drumming used to benefit from having great elders worth copying here. A little bit of the great rubs off in everybody.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Comment Link Broken

For some reason, blogger isn't letting me post a comment in my last post, so I'm putting it here instead until I figure this out.

Ritmo wrote:
At some point, science should be allowed to inform public policy.
Yes. There's an earlier post here where I praise Nature for publishing dissenting opinion on AGW.

As for Chu-- I have a tag for him.  I have been following DoE politics at least since the 1980's. My negative opinion of him stems from his stewardship of the agency, and not from his capability as a scientist.  I tend to dislike the sort of blind respect he garners, for example from POTUS during the Deepwater Horizon event. I looked for, but could not find, a video link to Chris Matthews when he, fed up with Obama's dithering said (paraphrasing) "If he says one more thing about his Nobel Prize I'm gonna puke."
If Chu were appealing to personal beliefs and feelings as a way to trump a stance on the issues about which politics is allowed to opine and governments obliged to seek empirical evidence, then as with Giaever, Pauling, Mullis and even Einstein (when he famously rejected quantum mechanics on theological[!] grounds), I'd say he's wandering too far afield from the mission asked of him.
The public trust and opinion of DoE at this point speaks for itself. If POTUS wanted to fix one thing with one fell swoop he could replace Chu with someone less adversarial towards the energy industries in America.
Of course we allow/encourage creativity and dissent to inform the scientific spirit in ways that will allow for superstitious cranks as easily as they will for genius. But shouldn't a public service be compelled to rely on the most accurate evidence possible? [Yes!] And when it comes to the projection of limited data on an evolving, real-life scenario decades into the future, is the precautionary principle and reliance on smaller scale models really too much to ask for?
If pharmacologists were allowed to treat animal toxicology the way Americans treat climate science, we'd have generations of flipper babies and other disturbing catastrophes to show for it.
The litigious nature of our country would see to the extinction of such polluters well before any agency need intervene
We rely on smaller preclinical studies to temper our willingness to proclaim an IND absolutely safe, no matter how notoriously difficult it is to extrapolate animal toxicology to safety in humans.
I think this is at it should be and the appropriate model for planetary real-time experiments in tinkering with the composition of the atmosphere, and for public policy generally.

The flip side of that risk does not allow for a favorable cost/benefit trade-off to the population as a whole.
One could call environmentalists overzealous, but their track record on giving us a cleaner and more sustainable planet is better than that of their adversaries. And I have a difficult time understanding why financial conflicts of interest are obvious and acted upon when it comes to petty crimes and personal matters, but not when entire industries and political factions are involved.

My scientific understanding would be greatly enhanced by an adequate explanation of that.

Let's consider the environmental movement and public perceptions.  I'm just old enough to recall the birth of the EPA and also the public sentiment at the time, perhaps best summarized in that brilliant advertisement of the American Indian paddling through the polluted water and shedding a tear.
Is there anyway, today, that such a simple and effective message could be used to promote the dispersion of CFL bulbs? I'm bothered by the dispersion of mercury into the environment which those bulbs foster. Smokestacks emit Hg too, but the emissions are more efficiently captured in a flue trap. Today's "big messages" are clouded with ambiguity.

Another example:  I seem to recall The Economist championing carbon taxes as an acceptable idea apart from any disincentive for CO2 production. The notion was IIRC, just an admission that such taxes would be "most fair."  Please correct me if I'm wrong on that.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Another Crack In The Façade

Nobel-Prize Winning Physicist Resigns Over Man Made Global Warming. Link

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Off With His Head!

"It took them only an instant to cut off his head, but France may not produce another such head in a century."
~Joseph Louis Lagrange commenting on the beheading of Antoine Lavoisier by French revolutionaries in 1794.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Animal Magnetism and the Lure of Bad Ideas

[This post was inspired by seeing a horse with magnetic bracelets around its fetlocks; the animal was undergoing "magnetic therapy treatment."]

Magnets fascinate us because they act at a distance -- both attracting and repelling.  Lodestone (the name literally means "leading stone") was so named for its navigational utility. There was a time when magnetism was consigned to inanimate things -- and then just mostly to iron. Ironically, magnetic navigation by birds and other animals appears to rely on magnetite.

As long as magnetism remains a mysterious force, it will find uses in medicine and alternative therapies. Discredited science and pseudo-science can die out and then return in vigor, once new discoveries occur. Such is the case for animal magnetism.

Around 1784, pre-revolutionary Paris was enthralled by Franz Mesmer, whose schtick was to pass magnets over people and cure them of alleged physical and mental ailments. Louis XVI (or his courtiers) was concerned enough to task the learned heads at the time to look into the matter. A Royal Commission included Antoine Lavoisier and Benjamin Franklin, among others. To make a long but interesting story short, the Royal Commission debunked Mesmer and he faded into near obscurity, leaving behind only the verb "to mesmerize." The whole story was brilliantly translated and retold by Stephen Jay Gould in his Bully For Brontosaurus.

Around 1845, Michael Faraday discovered that all matter responds to magnetic fields, albeit weakly and then only in the presence of very strong fields. Faraday named this remarkable property diamagnetism (though he did not explain its origins). Faraday's discovery briefly reenergized a belief in animal magnetism.

Faraday also discovered the paramagnetism of oxygen (he used soap bubbles filled with O2 rather than liquid oxygen). Faraday developed a theory that atmospheric oxygen is seasonally influenced by the earth's magnetic field via temperature. He later abandoned this brainchild.*
*Frank A.J.L. James, Michael Faraday: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press (2010)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Pistol Wars: Beretta 92FS

Beretta 92FS

The contender: Beretta 92FS

Caliber: 9mm

In your hand: The Beretta 92FS feels like water. By that, I mean it really had no taste and was rather generic. The magazine holds 10 rounds and reloads easily. Interestingly, I learned reading that Wiki article that the Beretta's magazine can hold up to 15 rounds, but that local regulations forced the design of smaller magazines. The design reminded me of a 1911, but aesthetically, this handgun is gorgeous, just as you'd expect from Italian designing.

On the range: Sighting on the Beretta was not so great. I missed more than I expected. It could have been excitement. 

Overall: This semiautomatic handgun is the one now used by our armed forces. Beretta beat the competition back in 1985 and the venerable M1911 was replaced. I'm going to rate this handgun second only to the Kimber Target II 9mm I raved about back here.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Cobalt, Goblins And Globins

Cobalt's mysterious name apparently traces back to Greek and Latin roots meaning evil spirit. read more. Though known to Paracelsus (1493-1541) as salts and oxides, cobalt was not considered an element until Antoine Lavoisier redefined the very term "element."

Chemists have a little mnemonic teaching rhyme which goes:

 If it's blue, it's cobalt (II).

Cobalt (II) salts give the gorgeous deep blue color which contrasts the stark white tin glaze used in Delftware pottery:


Like iron, our bodies need cobalt -- just less of it. Vitamin B12, also called cobalamin, contains cobalt. Vitamin B12 fascinates me because it was present at several very important 20th century chemical mileposts. I could write a blog post about each and every of the following:
  • How the discovery of liver juice and liver extracts cured pernicious anemia, leading to a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1934.
  • How after the curative factor was isolated and named Vitamin B12, British chemist Dorothy Hodgkin determined its structure using X-ray crystallography. Vitamin B12 was then the most complex natural molecule known.* Hodgkin received the 1964 Nobel Chemistry Prize for her work.
  • How Hodgkin's structure inspired Robert Burns Woodward, American chemist extraordinaire, to synthesize B12 de novo. This work, his crowning oeuvre, in collaboration with Albert Eschenmoser in Switzerland, spanned a dozen years and spawned much new chemistry and also a set of rules which led to another Nobel Prize in 1981 (which Woodward would have shared had he lived).
  • How the isolation of Vitamin B12 sparked a legal battle in the patent world beginning in the late 1950's: the legal question was whether something found in nature was patentable subject matter or not. Ironically, SCOTUS may be revisiting parts of a 1958 case this fall when they decide to hear arguments or not regarding the patentability of genes.
*While the contemporaneous discovery of DNA (the double helix) was perhaps more important, B12 was intellectually more interesting, involving as it did a novel cobalt-carbon bond. 

What were you doing the morning of September 11th, 2001?

I was playing hooky from work in order to finish a home improvement project. Our 1970's tract house has really high ceilings in the living room and a big wooden beam runs across the apex from wall to wall. The original builders had stained it a deep chocolate brown (Padre Brown around here), which we thought was butt-ugly.  I decided to sand it down with a belt sander and then stain it a much lighter color.

We had to rent scaffolding because the beam was way too high for a ladder, even for the 14 foot collapsible aluminum one.  So I was up there on my scaffold like Leonardo in the Sistine Chapel except I was standing and not lying down. Layers of stain and wood dust were coming off quickly enough and I was protecting my eyes with a pair of safety goggles, the kind that fit like a diving mask. I also wore a dust mask over my mouth. Debris and filth rained down on me, but it was good enough to brush it off from time to time. The entire floor in the living room was covered in drop cloth to aid the clean up. It was hot and sweaty work but I'd been at it a day or two and had gotten the hang of it.

I was just getting started that morning when the phone rang and my wife (who was watching our two kids) interrupted me and said it was my mother. I put down the sander and climbed down the scaffold. I walked outside to brush myself off, taking the phone with me. My mother broke the news:

Mom:  Have you got your TV on?
Me:  No, why?
Mom:  It's terrible -- they're saying it's an attack. 

She explained about the towers and how the second had already been hit, obviating any chance that it was accidental. Now here's where my memory gets fuzzy because what I did next was to remove my safety goggles and then somehow a piece of debris got into my eye. A mild irritation turned into a feeling of going blind in one eye. I do recall seeing the towers burning on TV before they fell (through one eye). But then things got worse for me and I had to go to urgent care to remove what I thought was a splinter lodged somewhere in my eye. 

The urgent care clinic was fully staffed and saw me quickly. My wife watched the kids in the waiting room. The nurses were staring at their own TVs while checking me in. I think the towers must have been collapsing about then. A young Indian doctor saw me and told me that there was nothing residual in and around my eye but that I had scratched my cornea. He told me to give it a rest and that it would heal on its own after a few days. 

I went back home and caught up with the devastating news on the car radio and TV news. I really didn't dwell on the visual images recorded that day because it really hurt to look at anything. I tried to stay in the dark for a couple days. Plus I was still obsessed with the overhead beam and finishing it before the rental contract expired for the scaffolding.
There must be a lesson about specks, beams, eyes, vision and hypocrisy somewhere in this story, but I still can't see it. I do know that 9/11 was the beginning of something that has not even begun to end.

The Truth

Commenter LL said:
You can only find truth if you're not afraid of what you're going to find. It's true of everything in science and in life. And I don't know many people who are not afraid of the truth. In the immortal movie words of Jack Nicholson, 'You can't handle the truth.'

Regarding the Truth, Winston Churchill said: 
Men occasionally stumble over the the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened. 
I'm not sure if Churchill meant that ordinary men failed to recognize the truth when they saw it or if, when they did, they pretended not to recognize it. I should look into the full context of the quote.

Friday, September 9, 2011

"For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes"

The human understanding is no dry light, but receives an infusion from the will and affections; whence proceed sciences which may be called "sciences as one would." For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes. Therefore he rejects difficult things from impatience of research; sober things, because they narrow hope; the deeper things of nature, from superstition; the light of experience, from arrogance and pride, lest his mind should seem to be occupied with things mean and transitory; things not commonly believed, out of deference to the opinion of the vulgar. Numberless in short are the ways, and sometimes imperceptible, in which the affections colour and infect the understanding.

~Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, Aphorism XLIX (1620)

What's Love Got To Do With AGW?

Sissy Willis points to a very important paper published in Nature. I haven't seen it yet, but I will (Nature papers are behind a pay wall).  Breitbart News is on the case.  Don't expect the MSM to pick this up anytime soon. In a nutshell, the paper contributes the news that CO2 is a minor contributor to AGW, i.e., there are multiple hypotheses to explain earth's increasing temperatures. The real news here is the venue of publication, the venerable Nature.  Will America's leading scientific journal, Science, also allow dissent? If both mainstream science publications pick this up, then perhaps there finally can be a grown up discussion on "what to do" about warming if anything. Meanwhile, I applaud Nature for publishing this. Scientific integrity ultimately depends on such decisions.

As for my title, a recent unrelated turn of events led me to an astonishingly prescient paper by T.C. Chamberlin published in 1897. Chamberlin was president of the University of Wisconsin from 1887 to 1892 (there is a building named after him there, IIRC). Chamberlin wrote a highly influential paper called The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses which I reproduce in part below. The snippet is lengthy (but rich) and offers almost a psychological analysis of how good science can fail:
Love was long since represented as blind, and what is true in the personal realm is measurably true in the intellectual realm. Important as the intellectual affections are as stimuli and as rewards, they are nervertheless dangerous factors, which menace the integrity of the intellectual processes. The moment one has offered an original explanation for a phenomenon which seems satisfactory, that moment affection for his intellectual child springs into existence; and as the explanation grows into a definite theory his parental affections cluster about his intellectual offspring and it grows more and more dear to him, so that, while he holds it seemingly tentative, it is still lovingly tentative, and not impartially tentative. So soon as this parental affection takes possession of the mind, there is the rapid passage to the adoption of theory. There is an unconscious selection and magnifying of the phenomenon that fall into harmony with theory and support it, and an unconscious neglect of those that fail of coincidence. The mind lingers with pleasure upon the facts that fall happily into the embrace of the theory, and feels a natural coldness toward those that seem refractory. Instinctively there is a special searching-out phenomenon that support it, for the mind is led by desires. There springs up, also, an unconscious pressing of the theory to make it fit the facts and a pressing of the facts to make them fit the theory. When these biasing tendencies set in, the mind rapidly degenerates into the partiality of paternalism. The search for facts, the observation of phenomena and their interpretation are all dominated by affection for a favored theory until it appears to its author or its advocate to have been overwhelmingly established. The theory then rapidly rises to the ruling position, and investigations, observation, and interpretation are controlled and directed by it. From unduly favored child, it readily becomes master, and leads its author whithersoever it will. The subsequent history of that mind in respect to that theme is but the progressive dominance of a ruling idea.
Briefly summed up, the evolution is this: a premature explanation passes into tentative theory, then into an adopted theory, and then into ruling theory. 
~ T.C. Chamberlin, The Journal of Geology, 1897, 5: 837-848.  Link.

Related thoughts here

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Conversations with Henry: This whole Texas thing...

Henry:  Watching Romney and Perry last night, I was reminded of the story of Al Cotton.

Me: How so?

Henry: Cotton was Geoff Wilkinson's first student -- I told you that here. Well, after graduating from Harvard, Cotton took a position at MIT which he held for many many years, building quite a group and reputation. He wrote a number of textbooks and advised quite a number of illustrious chemists. Perhaps the most famous thing he did was to identify the first quadruple bond, which was something outside the realm of organic chemistry.

Me:  Yeah, so?

Henry: The thing about Cotton was that he was arch-conservative, politically. Now, I suppose that really shouldn't matter in the physical sciences, but Al was finally so fed up that he up and left Massachusetts and went to Texas A&M.

Me:  Isn't that Rick Perry's alma mater?

Henry: Yes. Even worse, besides moving to Texas, he got Welch money.

Me: What's Welch money?

Henry: Well, some detractors thought it meant he was a Bircher. But you can google that one for yourself. All I can say is, they got the wrong Welch!  But to some, oil money is still dirty money.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

How Freud's "Ich Factor" got lost in translation

When Sigmund Freud invented and first wrote about the Id, the Ego, and the Super-Ego, he used the German language terms: das Es, das Ich, and das Über-Ich.  German speakers will instantly recognize the corresponding pronoun parts of speech. This point has been made before: link.

When I thought about Freud's constructs as a sketch, I discovered it had been done already (of course):


In that scheme, das Ich (Ego) encircles an inchoate Es (Id). Each individual* Ich is in turn surrounded by a larger circle, "the Environment" (super-ego).

More often, Freudian constructs are sketched as an iceberg, for example:


I like the circles sketch better. Stretching the notion, the political constructs of individuals, states, nations, and supra-national entities fit an expanded "circles of circles" diagram and also help explain my father's favorite dictum:
If people can't control themselves, the government will. If the government can't control itself, another government will.
His was not an argument for the authority of a nation versus individual states, nor was it a model for the authority of nations versus supra-national bodies. Rather, it just explained a mechanism for maintaining a semblance of order in the world. The Ich (Ego) is the most important aspect of personality because it maintains the balance between the irrational and the super-rational. The Freudian model is also a model for self-governance.
*Individual: a portmanteau word giving a sense of both (1) duality--having both "idward" and outward facets--as well as (2) indivisibility.

Watch What You Say

"The art of concluding from experience and observations consists in evaluating probabilities, in estimating if they are high or numerous enough to constitute proof. This type of calculation is more complicated than one might think. It demands a great sagacity generally above the power of common people. The success of charlatans, sorcerers, and alchemists—and all those who abuse public credulity—is founded on errors of this type of calculation." Link
~Antoine Lavoisier (the father of modern chemistry and who was guillotined during the French Revolution)