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Energy

With the invention of the first practical steam engines at the turn of the seventeenth century, and mechanical energy’s increasing utility to replace the physical labour of humans and animals, human civilisation took a new turn.  

Now when a contemporary human catches public transport to work; drives the car to socialise with friends or family; washes and dries their clothes or the dishes; cooks their food; mows their lawn; uses a power tool; phones a friend or associate; or makes almost anything;  they use power once provided by slaves, servants or animals.

We still often measure physical work in terms of horsepower per hour.  A horsepower (hp) is aproximately equivalent to the energy available from a draft horse on a sustainable basis during a four hour shift.  This was defined during the Industrial Revolution as being equal to  33,000 ft-lb/sec = 775.7 Watts.  A healthy human can produce about 1.2 hp briefly and sustain about 0.1 hp indefinitely; trained athletes can manage up to about 2.5 hp briefly and 0.3 hp for a period of several hours.  Some horses can deliver up to 14.9 hp for brief periods* and can pull with the strength of 50 'circus' men.     

On balance, a good 'rule of thumb' is that on a sustained basis, one horsepower is equivalent to the physical work of around ten people. 

The average hand held hair dryer consumes about two horsepower (1500 Watts) ; equivalent to the work of around 20 servants pedalling away to drive a generator for the time it takes to dry a woman's hair.

To deliver clean water to our homes and to dispose of our sewage consumes the energy equivalent of thousands more horsepower each year; and to provide us with food and housing; thousands more again.  If we use air conditioning at home; in the workplace; on public transport; or in the private car; many more horsepower hours are consumed.   If our recreations involve travel: by ship; air; train; or bus; or motors of any kind, for example in the snow fields; the list extends.

Many other things we do today would be impossible in a slave economy.  There would be no television or radio; no mobile phones; and no computer networks or World Wide Web; as all of these rely on a modern electricity generation and distribution networks.  When our electricity fails as it did for me in New York in the 70's we suddenly get a taste of what it was once like without: light; heating; cooling; lifts; trains; traffic lights; water; sewerage; communications; or entertainment.  Could we go back to the start of the 20th century?  

 

A Good Life

As travel and museum visits quickly teach us, most of these things are extraordinarily recent; and, when they existed at all, were the province of the hyper-wealthy.    

Most of this energy we use so liberally is still fire based.  From the internal combustion engines to electricity generation stations the majority of energy used in the world today still requires that something is burnt.  Before the systematic use of agriculture, humans were hunter gatherers.  We shared, with various other members of the genus homo, sufficient intelligence to master the primitive use of fire.  In the case of homo sapiens sapiens, early humans, fire was used to extend our range into cold climates; to keep in other animals at bay; in hunting; to extend the range of edible foods; and to improve tool making.

As agricultural technology developed, fire was used more extensively. Now kilns were added to fire pottery used for food storage; cooking, processing and presentation; in addition to the manufacture of oil lamps; ornaments and jewellery. Civilisation had begun.

As metals smelting was discovered fire became even more important to civilisation.  But any mechanical effort such as grinding, lifting or transporting still needed to be provided by humans and/or domesticated animals.  Until quite recently civilisation depended on human slavery, either formal, as slaves or prisoners, or economic; for example through serfdom or indentured service. In the Bible, for example, slaves and servants are treated as a fact of life.  The ability of one group to live well depended on the slavery, or equivalent impoverishment, of a vastly larger group, often simply to provide their physical labour.

Water wheels began to complement muscle power from perhaps the third century BCE and commercial wind powered machinery dates from perhaps the 11th century CE but it was not until the invention of a practical steam engine that animal sweat and brawn began to be replaced in a significant way.   

Many have asserted that it is not how much wealth one has, but how one lives one’s life that's important.  While this is no doubt true, it is difficult to live a ‘good life’ as a slave in real or economic chains; deprived of education; without a career choice; or denied the benefits of travel and other wider experiences.

Of course a slave may still be happy or have moments of enjoyment; they may not even have to work very hard; but can such a life be described as good?  For a more in depth discussion about the difference between a ‘happy life’ and a ‘good life’ read my essay to my children: The Meaning of Life on this website.

That a ‘good life’ is now accessible to ordinary people is therefore entirely due to the harnessing of energy.  But on a more sombre side, energy has also made the availability, production and delivery of food relatively less costly and this has fuelled an enormous human population explosion. 

The net effect for humanity, considered as a single organism, has not been much improvement in achieving a universal 'good life'.  One of the most profound outcomes of the increasing availability of new sinew-less energy to the the global human organism has been a ten fold increase in its size since the invention of the steam engine.

While it is true that tens of millions now live in comparative comfort, enjoying the benefits that cheap energy and related technology has brought, thousands of millions more have been born into abject poverty, disease and a short and ignorant life.

In my lifetime the number of poor and ignorant in India alone, has risen by close to a thousand million people.  Most of central and Northern Africa is in an even worse state and this is echoed in various parts of South and Central America.  Because of runaway population growth almost all of the benefits of the improving quality of life in the developed world have been offset by a massive increase in the abject poor of the third world.  For every one of these poor that survives several have died.  Thus during my lifetime several thousand million undernourished babies, impoverished children and diseased young adults have already died; prematurely in ignorance and poverty.  The 'good life' was far from their reach.  

This is a holocaust on a scale unprecedented in human history. But now this out of control growth in the global human organism threatens to destroy the habitability of the very planet.

The lesson from those parts of the world where population is not growing is that improved living and educational standards for all, but particularly for women, are urgently required.  Girls need to be released from cultural servitude and the dominance of men and to be empowered to take control of their own reproduction.   The outmoded cultural values and wrong beliefs** that are counter to these imperatives are at the root cause of the present holocaust.

To initiate this progress, and as progress is itself made, very much higher levels of personal energy use in the third world will necessarily follow.  Thus, in energy terms, the present impact of growing population on the planet will be exacerbated by the increase in  personal energy use required to achieve the necessary improvement in individual living standards necessary to curtail fertility.  Multiplying these two factors yields projections of a large and exponential growth in demand for energy by the global human organism.

This behemoth, the global human organism, is chewing into the fossil and other resources of the planet evermore voraciously; so that fossil deposits that were laid down over hundreds of millions of years are being consumed in a few tens of years and in a very real way the behemoth now depends on and survives through its consumption of these energy resources.

Any constraint placed on these resources, without alternative sources of energy becoming available, is likely to result in severe damage to global humanity, in the form of social disruption and many premature deaths.  An alternative source of energy is desperately required.

 

How long can this continue?

In my view the two central issues facing us are:

  1. Constraining the growth of the global human organism, so that it puts energy to good use, improving the lives of its participants, rather than simply growing larger and even more voracious.  
  2. Progressively replacing fire-based energy technology with more advanced and/or alternative energy sources.

In particular we need to mobilise the mass-energy equivalence identified by Albert Einstein in 1905 in his famous equation stating that energy equals the square of the speed of light times the mass of matter converted: E = MC2.  Thus a few kilograms of matter can provide more energy than we can possibly consume.  This conversion is where the sun's energy comes from and is the original source of the energy embodied all the fuels we burn today.

In addition to sunlight an important reason that the Earth remains habitable is that its outer core, below a viscus mantle and the relatively very thin crust, remains molten.  We are warmed from below as well as above.  The heat lost to the surface is continuously topped-up by internal nuclear fission, predominantly due to the ongoing decay of Thorium-232, Uranium-235, and Uranium-238, but there are many more natural radioactive isotopes that also contribute.  There is considerable, apparently deliberate, misinformation on this subject.  For a reliable scientific analysis follow this link.  Today's fission reactors consume the isotopes of heavy elements, usually uranium, that have been ejected from the Earth's natural internal fission reactor.    

We are beginning on a very small scale, around 500 operating power stations and a similar number of ships, to exploit  Einstein's mass energy equivalence in conventional nuclear fission reactors.  Some 44 countries already have or are planning to build such power stations but this number is still insignificant in comparison to worldwide coal, gas and petroleum fired electric power generation and internal combustion engines. These presently supply about 6% of civilisation's annual energy consumption. 

To reduce our dependence on fire based energy we need to increase our use of indirect nuclear energy as well.   Solar, wind and hydro power exploit the Sun's fusion heat and geothermal power exploits the Earth's internal nuclear reactor.  But each of these is constrained by similar commercial viability issues to those that have limited the growth of conventional nuclear power; and each has additional special geographical constraints and technical shortcomings.  Hydro-power, is by far the most important of these 'renewables' and contributes about half as much energy worldwide as conventional nuclear energy.   But the remaining 'alternatives' contribution to global energy production is a presently a fraction of this.  Wind and solar are by far the most important of these remaining 'alternatives'.  Together wind and solar provide around one hundredth of the energy consumed annually worldwide.  All other 'alternatives' collectively, including wave, tidal and geothermal, contribute less than half of that.

The projected contribution and practicality of the available alternatives is analysed in more detail in the article 'Renewable Electricity'.  These practical constraints are unlikely to be overcome to the extent necessary for these ' renewables' and 'alternatives' to significantly replace fossil fuels, before serious damage is done to the planet and/or to the viability of the present human population.

At the moment the only hope lies in conventional nuclear fission.  But with a bit more technical effort and commitment we should be able to tame then make commercial the power of the fusion reaction to exploit the oxide of deuterium, heavy hydrogen, widely found in our oceans.  This is the reaction that already powers modern nuclear (hydrogen) weapons; and provides the energy of the sun.  It leaves no decay products (nuclear waste) to dispose of and the resource is, to all intents and purposes, inexhaustible. 

We need progress on these things; our future life depends on them.


*  But at full power a human has more endurance than a horse.  A marathon held in Llanwrtyd Wells in Wales every June between horses and humans demonstrates that an exceptional athlete can sometimes run-down a fast horse over 22 miles; it takes about two hours.  Native hunters still run-down game in this way.

** These values and beliefs need to be broken down and corrected.  All beliefs that cannot be tested are intrinsically subjective and personal.  In a pluralistic society religious beliefs can have no universal validity or scope.  Private religious beliefs should not be allowed to determine public policy; nor should they be allowed to confer a right to direct or otherwise interfere in the lives of others.

 

 


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Travel

Taiwan

 

 

 

In May 2015 four of us, Craig and Sonia Wendy and I, bought a package deal: eleven days in Taiwan and Hong Kong - Wendy and I added two nights in China at the end.  We had previously travelled together with Craig and Sonia in China; Russia, India and South America and this seemed like a good place to do it again and to learn more about the region.

Taiwan is one of the Four Asian Tigers, along with Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong, achieving the fastest economic growth on the Planet during the past half century. Trying to understand that success was of equal interest with any ‘new sights’ we might encounter.

Read more ...

Fiction, Recollections & News

More on Technology and Evolution

 

 

 

 

Regular readers will know that I have an artificial heart valve.  Indeed many people have implanted prosthesis, from metal joints or tooth fillings to heart pacemakers and implanted cochlear hearing aides, or just eye glasses or dentures.   Some are kept alive by drugs.  All of these are ways in which our individual survival has become progressively more dependent on technology.  So that should it fail many would suffer.  Indeed some today feel bereft without their mobile phone that now substitutes for skills, like simple mathematics, that people once had to have themselves.  But while we may be increasingly transformed by tools and implants, the underlying genes, conferred by reproduction, remain human.

The possibility of accelerated genetic evolution through technology was brought nearer last week when, on 28 November 2018, a young scientist, He Jiankui, announced, at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, that he had successfully used the powerful gene-editing tool CRISPR to edit a gene in several children.

Read more ...

Opinions and Philosophy

The Chemistry of Life

 

 

What everyone should know

Most of us already know that an atom is the smallest division of matter that can take part in a chemical reaction; that a molecule is a structure of two or more atoms; and that life on Earth is based on organic molecules: defined as those molecules that contain carbon, often in combination with hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen as well as other elements like sodium, calcium, phosphorous and iron.  

Organic molecules can be very large indeed and come in all shapes and sizes. Like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle molecular shape is often important to an organic molecule's ability to bond to another to form elaborate and sometimes unique molecular structures.

All living things on Earth are comprised of cells and all cells are comprised of numerous molecular structures.

Unlike the 'ancients', most 'moderns' also know that each of us, like almost all animals and all mamals, originated from a single unique cell, an ova, that was contributed by our mother.  This was fertilised by a single unique sperm from our father.

This 'fertilisation' triggered the first cell division. These two cells divided; and divided again and again; through gestation and on to birth childhood. So that by the time we are adults we've become a huge colony of approximately thirty seven thousand billion, variously specialised, cells of which between sixty and a hundred billion die and are replaced every day. Thus the principal function of a cell, over and above its other specialised purposes, is replication. 

As a result, the mass of cells we lose each year, through normal cell division and death, is close to our entire body weight. Some cells last much longer than a year but few last longer than twenty years. So each of us is like a corporation in which every employee and even the general manager has changed, yet the institution goes on largely as before, thanks to a comprehensive list of job descriptions carried by every cell - our genome.

Cell replication is what we call 'life'.  The replicating DNA molecule can therefore be regarded as the 'engine of life' or the 'life force' on Earth.  So it is quite a good thing to understand. 

 


What makes us human?

Different animals and plants have different numbers of genes and chromosomes that together make up their genome.  Many are far more complex than humans.  The 32 thousand  human genes are organised into 23 pairs of chromosomes within each of our cells.  But the protein-coding genes, that differentiate us, form only a fraction (about 1.5%) of the instruction and memory data that is stored in DNA. The remainder, coding for other aspects of cell chemistry, seems to be administrative overhead.

When human girls are born, they have about a million eggs in each of their two ovaries, nestled in fluid-filled cavities called follicles. But this number declines quite rapidly so that it is depleted by the time of menopause (usually before 50 years of age). Unless fertility treatment is in use, just one or sometimes two of these (apparently randomly selected) ova descends from the ovaries each menstrual period - down the woman's fallopian tubes where it (or they) may become fertilised if the woman has recently engaged in coitus (had 'sex').

As in vitro fertilization (IVF) demonstrates every day; we now understand that a unique version of your father's genome was injected into your mother's egg by just one of his millions of spermatozoa. So that when the two genomes merged a doubly unique cell, that became you, was the result.

Our genes, that are encoded in their DNA, come in equal proportion from both parents.  Unless we have an identical twin, resulting from division of the zygote (see below) after fertilisation, each of us is genetically unique; our genetic identity determined by that successful fertilisation. 

 

 


Human Reproduction - Click here to Expand

 

Within our species we are said to be of Caucasian or Asian or African appearance, to have dark or fair complexion and so on, and possibly to bear a ‘family resemblance’.  These traits are due to the particular gene variants we have inherited from our parents.

These have been passed down to us, with regular variations, from parent to child, and through many ancestor species, since life began on the planet. And all plants and animals on Earth belong to a single family because we all inherit the same system of reproduction from one original replicating cell, our last universal common ancestor (LUCA) 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago.

 


Replication

The DNA molecular structure resembles a zip fastener, where each tooth can be any of four molecular bases.  The bases G-C and A-T are each small organic molecules that at one point are covalently bound to a triphosphate (containing three phosphorous atoms) and a sugar group that binds them in a ribbon.  At their free end Guanine is attracted to Cytosine, with triple hydrogen bonds, and Adenine is attracted to Thymine, with double hydrogen bonds. 

In the following notation: black = Carbon;  blue = Nitrogen;  red = Oxygen; white = Hydrogen.   Bars joining them indicate a covalent bond, an electron shared between the atoms.  A double bar indicates two shared electrons.   

 

  Cytosine (C4H5N3O) has a shape that attracts (fits)   Guanine (C5H5N5O) 


but not  Thymine (C5H6N2O2)  or   Adenine (C5H5N5), that attract (fit) each other.

 

Each of these bases is bound to a ribbon of  sugar molecules and at its other end lightly bonds to a matching base on the other half of the 'zipper' such that when it is 'unzipped' each attracts its opposite number (like magnets attracting the opposite pole) thus recreating a new matching half in the same sequence.

 


DNA replication. 

 

This unzipping and reforming is called self-replication. It is going on continuously in all living things as new cells are created to replace those that die. In an adult human around three quarters of a million of our cells divide every second.  This cell division is the process we call organic life and may continue (usually briefly) after we are legally (brain) dead.

Other chemical mechanisms within the cell translate the genetic information stored in the DNA sequence to manufacture the proteins from which new cells are built and differentiate themselves, organising to become our various organs and to thus arrange themselves to form a human; and not a gorilla or a crocodile or a kola or a rose or a cabbage. The human genome project had now identified 32,185 human genes.

Accurate reproduction is very important to the viability of an organism.  Just as: 'WOLF' does not have the same meaning as 'FOWL' the location and order of sequence G-A-T-C within a particular DNA string (chromosome) will result in a different outcome to the sequence C-A-G-T .   And this difference will influence cell structure and purpose:   'The wolf eats the fowl' has a totally different meaning to: 'The fowl eats the wolf'.

This method of storing and reproducing instructions and data is twice as efficient as the binary method we presently use in electronic devices.  For example the binary processor in your computer or reading device requires each character in in each word in this sentence to be encoded in two bytes (each of 8 characters or bits).  In other words 16 ones and zeros are required for every character on this page (eg 'a' = 0000000001100001) and a similar number for each pixel in a simple colour image.  But DNA can encode the same information (sufficient for every unique character and symbol in every language in the world) in just eight characters.

There are a fraction over 3 billion characters in the human genome (3,079,843,747 base pairs).  In computer terms this is equivalent to about three quarters of a gigabyte of information storage. The same data is stored in the nucleus of each of our cells.  This is in nuclear DNA, before taking into account separate, but smaller, storage in each of the mitochondria (see below). 

A 'gig' isn't much you might say (less than $1's worth) but the actual data storage density is in excess of anything offered by our present electronic technology.  Cells are a lot smaller than the chip in a memory stick - there around a billion cells per cubic centimetre in hard tissue.

This also points to another reality.  Had not this replication chemistry been available, and the conditions for the reactions been just right, life could not have occurred in its earthly form. 

Life relying on another replication method that was say binary would be at a disadvantage and would have to use different replication mechanisms.  If there was a chemistry, at different temperatures and chemical concentrations, allowing say six base pairs it would be different again.  We and our cousins (the other animals, plants and other organisms) that are all descended from the original replicating cell (LUCA - see above) are here because the conditions on Earth were and are just right for our kind of life to prosper.

Elsewhere in the universe it may be different.

 


Gene Mapping

Genes are just patterns of chemical molecules that are held within the replicating DNA mechanism.  The way they are encoded onto DNA can be likened to any other mechanism for copying and recording data: a DVD or even a vinyl record or the memory in this computer.  As a result they can be altered or damaged from time to time and some of these variations are successfully copied into subsequent offspring.  If they are particularly advantageous to survival and reproduction these changes, or mutations, rapidly spread throughout the species, so that over tens of thousands of years, individuals successful in one environmental niche are so different from those successful in another that a new species has formed (followed by a new genus, family, order, and so on). 

This process of periodic differentiation has been likened to the branching of a tree but because of the activity of bacteria and viruses and residual DNA that may be reactivated as well as limited cross-species reproduction  (for example Humans and Neanderthal) it is no longer believed to be quite that simple.

DNA encodes the instructions for creating each cellular colony, defining each species, and each individual within a species. DNA changes over time in such away that each change is a development on previous generations. So it is possible to trace DNA ancestry back through generations of a particular species over time.  For example, DNA studies are increasingly shedding light on the questions around human origins. 

Most animals, including humans, carry two types of DNA.  Our main genome is carried by the chromosomes in the nucleus of each of our cells. This comes from both our parents. The secondary genome, mtDNA, is carried by bacteria-like organelles within each of our cells, that convert sugars for cell energy, called mitochondria. These are all cloned (reproduced by asexual division) from the mitochondria that were within the original egg cell provided by our mother.

Cells may contain from one mitochondrion to several thousand mitochondria depending on species and cell differentiation.  As a result this is the predominant DNA found in a cellular sample.

So our mtDNA comes only from our mother; in turn from her mother; and so on and mtDNA allows us to map the female ancestral line.  This original egg cell was fertilised by a sperm from our father (sperm do not contribute their mitochondria). Once fertilised, the egg cell then divided repeatedly, differentiating in accordance with the coding instructions in our DNA, into the many cells that form the cellular colony that became 'us'.

Males are differentiated from females by a Y chromosome in place of one X. So sons can only inherit this from their father (like their family name in our culture) and periodic mutations in the DNA of the Y chromosome allow the (actual) male ancestral line to be traced back.

As a result of this work we now know that humans on the planet are all descended from a single group that left Africa less than 70 thousand years ago. 

Recent DNA analysis shows that early humans sometimes interbred with the Neanderthal; a separate hominid subspecies that left Africa much earlier and settled in the Middle East and Europe over quarter of a million years ago.

It's amazing to think that we have only understood it within my lifetime. Now the ancient view that people grow from a seed, provided by their father, and gain the spark of life at 'conception' from a god is totally debunked. So throw away all those ancient texts.

 


Viruses

Viruses have been around since life began but they are 'of life', they are not technically 'alive' because they cannot themselves reproduce. They are extremely small - about 70 microns in diametre - and until the invention of electron microscopes in the 1930's their existance had only been inferred. 

To create copies of themselves they need a host cell with the necessary reproductive mechanisms. Over the millennia viruses have evolved the necessary mechanisms to penetrate cells, much like spermatozoa, and inject their DNA or RNA and capture the host's replication mechanisms so that the infected cell begins manufacturing thousands of virion (virus particle) clones of the invader. These then capture other nearby cells in the host animal or plant; or in similar bacteria.  Huge numbers of infected cells are usually destroyed in the process, sometimes killing the plant or animal.

 

Coronavirus particles (yellow) on the surface of a dying cell (that produced them)
Niaid/National Institutes of Health/Science Photo Library (from 
https://www.newscientist.com)

 

But animals plants and bacteria have become familiar with this threat and have in turn evolved means of dealing with or living with viruses to the extent that some are exploited for the benefit of the host.

In turn viruses evolve new strategies to perpetuate their reproduction. Thus new viruses arise from time to time, sometimes jumping from one species to another when an opportunity arises.

Many animals, including humans, have an immune system that has a memory of harmful viruses and means of neutralising them. Thus, once the animal has been infected and survived, the chances of reinfection are reduced.  Vaccines work by presenting our immune system with a harmless sample that allows it to recognise a particular harmful virus.

Since I first wrote this article the World has suffered a new viral pandemic.  It is a novel corona virus for which we have no established immunity and there is no vaccine.  At the end of June 2020 the Covi-19 virus has already killed half a million people.

It is estimated that this virus will no longer find sufficient vulnerable hosts to spread further after infecting around 70% of the populations in which it is spreading.  It has a case fatality rate of just under 1%, that is, of those who catch it just under one in a hundred die.  

Quarantine restrictions are in place in many countries to protect relatively uninfected areas, with local measures to eliminate 'hot spots'.  But the majority of the world's population, in excess of five billion, are in countries in which it is presently spreading.

Unless a vaccine is available soon it seems inevitable that many millions more will be killed.  The economic consequences are also dire.

 

 

 

 


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