Give yourself time to think

Jerry Mitrovica is a professor of geophysics at Harvard who studies changes in sea-level. He was recently interviewed by the science magazine, Nautilus, (“Why Our Intuition About Sea-Level Rise is Wrong”, 18 Feb 2016) on such topics as how the earth’s shape changes when a ice melts, and why sea levels go down near a melting ice mass, but rise farther away. The last question put to him was, Where do your “A-ha!” moments come from?

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Returning to a Green Campus?

This has been a tough summer in Portland. We’ve set a record for the number of days in which the top temperatures have exceeded 90F (average: 12 days/yr, 2015: 25 and counting). Despite the heat, and drought, and wildfires, Reed students will be returning to a campus that looks mostly green. But how ‘green’ is Reed really?

The Sierra Club has issued their 9th annual back-to-school rankings of eco-friendly colleges and universities and Reed is nowhere to be found. I suspect we don’t even submit any data.

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400 ppm CO2 and Reed says, “not our problem”

  • 403 ppm – CO2 level measured at Mauno Loa in April 2015
  • 401 ppm – CO2 level, April 2014.
  • 393 ppm – CO2 level, April 2011, current graduating class finished high school.
  • 356 ppm – CO2 level, April 1989. I began teaching at Reed.
  • 319 ppm – CO2 level, April 1961. Reed turns 50.

CO2 levels are rising faster than ever.

C&E News, the weekly news magazine of the American Chemical Society, says, “The CO2 level was hovering around 280 ppm prior to the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s, but the level has been creeping up because of the increased burning of fossil fuels. The data show that half of the 120-ppm increase since 1850 has occurred after 1980 and that the growth rate is increasing and now stands at 2.25 ppm per year.”

Can Reed College really pretend that 1961-era thinking about investments and global responsibility still apply today? Can anyone?

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Guardian says, ‘Keep it in the ground’

The logic of climate change is simple:

  • high-levels of atmospheric CO2 threaten our future (not only humans, but many species)
  • burning fossil fuels adds CO2 to the atmosphere (scientists estimate that the current level, ~400 ppm, is already dangerously high)
  • BINGO! We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground – that means unmined, unpumped, unextracted, unburnt – so that we can return CO2 to a safe level.

What is so hard to understand? None of it, really. The only reason we think of this as a Difficult Problem is that we developed an energy infrastructure based on fossil fuels before we recognized the danger they posed. We are like the lifetime heroin addict who says, “Now you tell me this stuff is dangerous?” Well, yes, now we are telling ourselves, this stuff is DANGEROUS.

Please learn more by reading some of the articles below, and joining the campaign to Keep It In The Ground.

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Attention seniors! Watch out for ‘Comma Queens’ (& kings)

The New Yorker celebrated its 90th birthday last month with a bunch of articles about the magazine. My favorite by far was “Holy Writ” by Mary Norris. She launches herself into the page with this teasing phrase, “I didn’t set out to be a comma queen.

But a ‘comma queen’ she has become, and commas are what she writes about: who invented them (and when and where), where they go (in New Yorker articles, and possibly, in your thesis), the different functions of commas (do you know what a ‘serial comma’ is? see below), and the unending set of puzzles they create for authors and editors.

Editing is where I and my Reed faculty colleagues come in to the picture. Like it or not, we will transform ourselves into Comma Royalty for the next six weeks. If you bring us a thesis draft with a misplaced comma, you’ll be sure to hear about it.

And now, you might ask, what is a serial comma?

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Global Divestment Day, Feb 13

Reed College was established just over 100 years ago. I don’t know what the pressing issues of the day were back then, but they certainly didn’t include global climate change. The notion that human activity, everyday human activity no less, could alter the global ecosystem, threaten food production, accelerate the pace of species extinction, etc., etc., was not only completely foreign to the College’s founders, it would have seemed like the most far-fetched idea imaginable. Perhaps, just perhaps, they believed that global transformation was something that Divine Providence could bring about, but it is a virtual certainty that they never conceived of this as being within the power of human beings to effect.

A look back is necessary because the College’s founders wrote a policy statement for how the College should behave in the future, and that statement is based on a massively ignorant view regarding humanity’s potential for good and for ill, and the policy it contains is being used as an excuse for inaction.

Reed must divest now.

That said, getting there might need to take more time than I would like and it might need to happen in stages rather than all at once. But as far as I’m concerned those are details to be worked out later. The College’s stated policy on fossil fuel investments needs to change now. We are facing a massive crisis that confuses us only because it is happening slowly, because it is taking different forms in different locales (and most of those are far away from Reed and places are trustees live), and because a huge amount of money and institutional inertia is trying to appeal to deep-rooted habits of action and thought with this time-tested message: “Ignore this. You can always take care of it later. Much later.”

Fortunately, we know better. The consequences of global climate change can’t be ignored and the causes have already been set in motion so we can’t wait to act. Come to the Global Divestment Day events on campus on Feb 13. If you aren’t at Reed, follow the events on the web. And be sure to check out this 2012 video: “Bill McKibben’s Thought Bubble: The Fight of Our Time.

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Reckoning with Evil? Divest!

The first day of classes brought a new poster on the building’s front door: “Reckoning with Evil, an interview with Prof. Newlands, Notre Dame.

This simple poster caused me to reflect. Evil has so many disguises.

Consider the burning of fossil fuels. A little bit of burning is actually good – it has kept me (and my ancestors) warm in winter, cooked our food, and preserved our health. But now the burning has clearly gotten out of hand. The unbridled use of fossil fuels has a clear potential for global evil, so why is it so hard for Reed College to divest itself from fossil fuel industries? Why can’t the trustees muster up the courage to place any limits on its appetite for fossil fuel investments? Why can’t they see any wisdom or potential for good in divesting from the dirtiest sector of this industry: coal?

If you want to see how evil can cloak itself in good (“fossil fuel investments protect academic freedom”), and camouflage its true character by sowing confusion (“this is a political matter, there is no clear moral course”) and uncertainty (“how do we know divestment will be beneficial?”), just read the July 17, 2014 Statement on Divestment from the Reed College trustees.

We will all be guilty until we get free.

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Holiday greetings from the Dalai Lama

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, has a message for us (reposted from Lion’s Roar):

My hope and wish is that, one day, formal education will pay attention to what I call education of the heart. Just as we take for granted the need to acquire proficiency in the basic academic subjects, I am hopeful that a time will come when we can take it for granted that children will learn, as part of their school curriculum, the indispensability of inner values such as love, compassion, justice, and forgiveness.

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The name of our beautiful reward is not profit

Ursula K. Le Guin is one of Portland’s greatest enduring gifts to the world of letters. I keep three of her so-called “young adult” books in my nightstand and I have obtained several copies of her rendering of the Tao Te Ching over the years, partly out of forgetfulness, but mostly out of enthusiasm for the spirit that she fires into these ancient teachings.

Ms. Le Guin received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards ceremony last week in New York. Her acceptance speech has gone viral online (people still care that much about authors and books!?) and a follow-up interview with the Oregonian explores how the speech came about and her ideas on authoring, publishing, science fiction, and capitalism. Read the speech, the Oregonian interview, and listen to NPR’s coverage.

Some speech highlights:

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality. …

We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words. …

We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

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The True Source of Chemical Bonds

Move over G.N. Lewis. Forget electron sharing, bonding orbitals, and ionic attraction. xkcd has finally deduced the secret of chemical bonding. (And guess what? I see some unexpected connections between C and U chemistry!)

Typographic Chemistry, xkcd #1442

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