How Plastics Poison Our Bodies and Minds

Of all the things that we teach in our chemistry classes, it seems like “the chemistry of plastics” is perhaps one of the most overlooked topics. Most organic chemistry textbooks explain the molecular structures associated with poly-this-and-that, but do little more than that. Textbooks for other chemistry courses may say even less. So the following article caught my eye.

“How Plastics Are Poisoning Us” by Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, 3 July 2023

(trigger warning: inserted halfway through the article is a small comic showing Brad Pitt? and a young woman in a compromising situation)

This short article (4 pages) appeared in The New Yorker magazine carries the heading “Annals of Science”, but it is actually a book review. The 4 books summarized by Kolbert are:

Continue reading
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on How Plastics Poison Our Bodies and Minds

Is There Renewable Hydrogen Under Your Feet?

When a chemist hears the word “hydrogen” several things likely come to mind. The letter H. Or the word ‘gas’. Perhaps a vivid memory of an exploding balloon during an intro chem lecture. “Renewable fuel” is probably not going to pop into anyone’s head, let alone a chemist’s, and yet, a recent Science magazine article describes how hydrogen was extracted from a “well” in Africa to power a village’s generators. The article goes on to describe the historical background of “natural hydrogen” (it was ignored, even thought impossible, for a long time), how it might be produced below the earth’s surface (iron chemistry!), and its possible opportunities-limitations as a fuel source. This is a very new area of science, and there are surely many exciting discoveries waiting to be made. Check out: “Hidden Hydrogen: Does Earth hold vast stores of a renewable, carbon-free fuel?” (Science, 17 Feb 2023, p. 630)

Posted in Climate change | Comments Off on Is There Renewable Hydrogen Under Your Feet?

Pinpointing CO2 Emissions Globally

Each week the NY Times emails me a list of articles it has published under the heading of Climate. Topping the list in today’s email was a fascinating article, “Who’s Driving Climate Change? New Data Catalogs 72,000 Polluters and Counting” (by R. Chang, NY Times, 9 Nov 2022). The article describes a nonprofit coalition called Climate TRACE that says it is able to use high-resolution emissions data collected by earth-orbiting satellites to identify large-scale emitters of greenhouse gases. Instead of relying on country-by-country, or country-based industry-by-industry, emissions reports, Climate TRACE claims that it can connect large-scale emissions of gases to specific facilities wherever they are located. The Times article says these facilities include “steel and cement factories, power plants, oil and gas fields, cargo ships, cattle feedlots”. (FYI Your neighbor’s gas guzzler is not on the list even though transportation accounts for a huge share of US emissions.)

Climate TRACE makes its data freely available, both in the form of maps and data downloads. Here is a view of the map of large-scale emitters of CO2 that I obtained today from their website. Sad to say, large-scale CO2-emitting facilities pop up all across North America, Europe, and Asia, and a few are even located in the southern hemisphere. So far the group’s results have not been published in peer-reviewed journals, but stay tuned …

Posted in Climate change | Comments Off on Pinpointing CO2 Emissions Globally

The Future of Coal Power in Oregon

The Oregonian shared an article and a video with me today about the demolition of PGE’s Boardman power plant. The plant operated from 1980 to 2020 until the decision was made to shut it down and move towards other energy sources. Coal had been a convenient, but dreadful, source of energy. Whether one looked at the environmental outcomes of coal mining, coal transport and handling, or coal burning, coal’s impact on living systems were generally bad.

As I learned from the PGE video, the Boardman power plant was located 160 miles east of Portland. Its smokestack was 656-tall, higher than two football fields tilted on their goal lines and stacked end-to-end. Even so, the Cascades prevented Boardman’s smokestack from being seen by PGE’s Willamette valley customers. I could reliably flip the lights on in my office at Reed, power up my computer, prepare for my class, or surf the web, without ever pausing to reflect on where my electrical energy came from. Or, for that matter, reflecting on the the long reach of my actions, adding to drought in California, bringing floods to Pakistan, and killing coral reefs in Australia.

Disentangling ourselves from fossil fuel’s web will not be easy. Scientists were already beginning to sound the alarm about global warming when the Boardman plant went online in 1980, and the shape of a “warmer” future was far from clear. However, the passage of 42 years has finally delivered a significant taste of the “future” dangers that those scientists had warned us about. PGE says it will replace some of Boardman’s power production with electricity derived from the burning of another fossil fuel, “natural” gas. Can we afford to wait another 40 years to see how this turns out?

The Boardman demolition video spends over 24 minutes on scenery, history, and interviews, before it shows the actual demolition of the power plant (if you’re in a hurry, skip to 24:20). The explosions take just a moment, but a long 14 seconds must pass before the smokestack finally hits the ground. Unfortunately, not seen in the video, are the CO2 molecules that were emitted on the plant’s first day of operation in 1980. They are still in the atmosphere today, heating the planet, and they will continue to wreak havoc for decades to come.

Posted in Climate change | Comments Off on The Future of Coal Power in Oregon

The Long Tentacles of the Fossil Fuel Industry

It is a well-publicized fact that the fossil fuel industry engaged in a decades-long strategy of deception and denial where climate change was concerned, even going so far as to bury evidence from its own scientists. Past tense, right? Well, apparently not when it comes to setting science education standards for Texas public schools. The long tentacles of the fossil fuel industry (primarily Big Oil and Big Gas) are still hard at work, trying to dictate what school children will learn about how the Earth works and how “informed” citizens should act, presumably so that the industry can continue to earn a few extra dollars while the planet spins towards a climate catastrophe.

I just came across the following description of how the industry has worked to rewrite K-12 science standards adopted by Texas school boards:

“And yet, as I learned when I watched 40 hours of live and archived board hearings, reviewed scores of public records and interviewed 15 people involved in the standard-setting process, members of the fossil-fuel industry participated in each stage of the Texas science standards adoption process, working to influence what children learn in the industry’s favor. Texas education officials convened teams of volunteers to rewrite the existing standards, and industry members volunteered for those writing teams and shaped the language around energy and climate. Industry members rallied to testify each time proposals to revise standards got a public hearing. When the board considered the rewritten standards for final approval, the industry appealed to members to advance their favored amendments, ensuring that the seemingly local drama in Austin will have outsized consequences.”

“Subverting Climate Science in the Classroom” by Katie Worth, Scientific American, 1 July 2022

The article goes on to describe how industry-supported representatives fought tooth-and-nail over each word in the standards in order to raise questions about the need, or even the benefit, of moving away from a fossil fuel-driven economy. And also, how the large size of the Texas school system virtually guarantees that the content of science textbooks will be rewritten to meet the system’s fossil fuel-friendly science standards.

Posted in Climate change | Comments Off on The Long Tentacles of the Fossil Fuel Industry

Can We Change?

“Watching these incremental but persistent increases in CO2 year-to-year is much like watching a train barrel down the track towards you in slow motion. It’s terrifying,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison climate scientist Andrea Dutton. “If we stay on the track with a plan to jump out of the way at the last minute, we may die of heat stroke out on the tracks before it even gets to us.”

from “Sky High: Carbon dioxide levels in air spike past milestone” by Seth Borenstein, AP Science Writer, 6/3/22 (source

We are creatures of habit. We have ways of being in the world, ways that we want to be in the world, and ways that we expect the world to be so that we can be and do the things we want. Nearly everyone operates on this basis. With this foundation, it should come as no surprise when I say we find it extraordinarily hard to change. This is true whether we are trying to change our ways of being, of wanting, or of expecting the world to be. And it is especially true if the change appears to involve a loss of some sort. Even when confronted with something as potentially catastrophic as climate change, we tend to stand on the track as long as we can, telling ourselves, “The train isn’t here yet. Right now I can enjoy the view. Later, when it goes close, I’ll jump. But only if I have to. Maybe someone on the train will see me and stop the train first.”

Why is change so difficult? Does my recognition of the problem make it any easier for me to change my own habits? And have I had any success inspiring others to change theirs? Here are two stories for your consideration.

Continue reading
Posted in Climate change | Comments Off on Can We Change?

Reed Announces Plan for Fossil Fuel Divestment

An email from Chair of the Reed College Board of Trustees, Roger Perlmutter ’73, and President of Reed College, Audrey Bilger, appeared in my inbox today. As I read, a grin spread from ear to ear. I could feel joy rising in my chest. Divestment at last!! My next action was to share the good news with friends and colleagues and to thank anyone who might have been influential in getting the Board to take this step. Make no mistake, a large number of people in the Reed community, students, alumni, staff, and faculty, have urged the Trustees many times over the past decade to take this step. I have added my voice on occasion, sometimes through personal meetings, sometimes through direct correspondence with College leadership, and several times through this blog (here’s a post from 2016; you can also click on the Climate Change category at the bottom of this post to see all posts on this topic). Each time I encountered resistance (or just silence), I told myself, “this is a difficult step for the Trustees to take”, but I never doubted for a moment that divestment was essential.

Let’s hope that where Reed College is going, others will follow. The planet is changing. Our actions are changing it. Most of the greenhouse gases that have been released world-wide have been produced during my lifetime. The corrective steps that need to be taken are easy to describe – stop creating (and funding the creation) of fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere – but how we get to “stop” and “reduce” are much harder problems to solve. It won’t happen overnight. So all of us — me, you, Reed College, and people all over the world — need to see this as our collective project, and to encourage each other in the effort.

Our planet is worth saving. And I am 100% certain that my grandchildren, if they were old enough to understand the nature of the problems facing the planet, would strongly agree.

To read Reed College’s divestment announcement, click here.

Posted in Climate change | Comments Off on Reed Announces Plan for Fossil Fuel Divestment

Remembering Prof. Charles Wu

I just received a sad, but inevitable, email from Reed College President Audrey Bilger. Another professor at Reed College from my time (1989-2021) has passed away. This email told me that the latest passing was that of Emeritus Prof. Charles Wu [Chinese and Humanities, 1988 – 2002] (1935-2021).

In my mind’s eye, I can still see Prof. Wu walking across campus at the Eliot Circle or sitting somewhere in a chair near me in a faculty meeting. Otherwise, our paths never crossed until just a few years ago when I found myself in a bookstore, standing in front of the shelves for Eastern philosophy, with a copy of Wu’s Thus Spoke Laozi: Dao De Jing, A New Translation with Commentaries open in my hand. I hesitated at first. I already owned 4 or 5 translations. Did I need another?

However, the possibility of reading a translation generated by a Reed College professor and native Chinese speaker was too special to ignore. I made my purchase and eagerly began another swim through Laozi’s Way. As I read Wu’s introduction to the text, how he approached it, and how the reader might use it, I was struck by his scholarly, insightful, yet humble, presentation. I felt a deep pang of regret that he had retired and I would never have an opportunity to sit in his classroom and learn from him directly. And, yet, I was comforted by the book that lay in my hands, and his perspective and understanding on Laozi filling my heart and mind.

Holding a cup while filling it to the brim
Is not as good as stopping then and there.
Hammering the blade till it is sharp
Cannot keep it so for long.
Stuffing the hall with gold and jade
Does not guarantee it will stay secure.
Turning arrogant after gaining wealth and position
Brings disaster upon oneself.
Retire after achieving one’s goal —
That is the Dao of Heaven.

Chapter 9, “Thus Spoke Laozi”, translation by Charles Q. Wu (2013)

Thank you, Professor. Your spirit continues to teach.

To read more about Prof. Wu’s life: The Northwest China Council Newsletter has included a memorial tribute to Professor Wu (beginning on the second page), and an obituary has been published in the Oregonian here

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Remembering Prof. Charles Wu

Do Forests Make the Wind?

Meteorology is not my field, but I’ve been paying much closer attention to trees (they’re everywhere in Portland!) and forests (harder to get to in these stay-at-home days) ever since I read The Overstory this past winter-spring. So I was naturally intrigued when my eye fell on Weather Makers in Science last month (19 June 2020, 1303). The subtitle says it all, “Forests supply the world with rain. A controversial Russian theory claims they also make the wind.” I was surprised twice over.

In my mind, rain comes from the ocean. Evaporation of water from the Pacific creates the clouds that keep Pacific Northwest skies gray most of the year. When the conditions are right, the clouds drop their load and turn my garden green. As for wind, I remember an instructive encounter during junior high. A kid said to me, “I’ll teach you where the wind comes from. The hot air rises (he raised his left hand dramatically high over his head and I tilted my head back to watch), and the cold air comes in to takes it place (and with that I got a quick smack on my cheek from his right-hook).”

But little did I know. In the 1990s scientists documented atmospheric rivers that lift moisture exhaled by forests and then carry it downwind. One so-called “flying river” over the Amazon provides 70% of the rain for southeastern South America. Another flying river brings China 80% of its rain from the west, starting in Europe and getting recycled through the forests of Scandinavia and Siberia. Cut down a forest and the land downwind turns into a desert.

The newest wrinkle is a proposal from two Russian scientists, Anastassia Makarieva and Victor Gorshkov, that forests also function as “biotic pumps” that create air flow, that is, wind. Doubters say this is likely a minor effect, while believers say that it is a significant factor in making the weather. The article gives ample space to both sides in the debate, and it also includes these important words:

Even those who doubt the theory agree that forest loss can have far-reaching climatic consequences. Many scientists have argued that deforestation thousands of years ago was to blame for desertification in the Australian Outback and West Africa. The fear is that future deforestation could dry up other regions, for example, tipping parts of the Amazon rainforest to savanna. Agricultural regions of  China, the African Sahel, and the Argentine Pampas are also at risk, says Patrick Keys, an atmospheric chemist at Colorado State University, Fort Collins.

In 2018, Keys … track[ed] the sources of rainfall for 29 global megacities. He found that 19 were highly dependent on distant forests for much of their water supply, including Karachi, Pakistan; Wuhan and Shanghai, China; and New Delhi and Kolkata, India. “Even small changes in precipitation could have big impacts on the fragility of urban water supplies,” he says.

Posted in Climate change | Comments Off on Do Forests Make the Wind?

Laughter & Music for the New Truth

As Gary Shteyngart so brilliantly wrote, “Half of us still seem to live in the Before Times and half in the New Truth.” In the Before Times, my family and friends spent way more time on social media than I did. If I had time to spare, I was much more likely to sit or walk in quiet (or maybe wander off on my bicycle).

None of this has been changed by the New Truth. Maybe we really weren’t all that different from each other? Media? Meditation? First 4 letters the same! Whether we mock our troubles, or invite them to a heart-to-heart, we all have to cope somehow.

Here is a list that will help you keep a light heart. And if the After Times ever do come, we can all come here and look back at the things that made us smile. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Laughter & Music for the New Truth