Archive for the ‘Chemistry’ Category

The day before yesterday, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of the Lent season. Like many other important days in the Christian calendar, its significance is best understood in the context of the seasonal changes of Europe.

Just as Christmas falls shortly after the shortest day of the southern solstice (winter solstice in the north), and thus the birth of Christ is associated with rebirth; thus Easter falls after the first full moon following the vernal equinox, and marks the fulfillment of the promise of Christmas. Which leaves us with the Lent period, the forty days preceding Easter. What, you might ask, does it symbolize?

Lent is a period of preparation — of prayer, penitence, self-denial — and it does, like the other two, have agricultural associations, to the period when food stored during the autumn is beginning to run out, what gardeners call the hungry gap. The day before Ash Wednesday, Shrove Tuesday (or Mardi Gras in French), is thus traditionally the last day for frivolities before people buckle down for the period of semi-fasting, so much that the name “Mardi Gras” often refers to the entire Carnival season, instead of the day itself.

We are blessed to live in a world where, for most people in developed and emerging countries, food scarcity is no longer a perennial issue (though that’s not the case as late as 19th century Sweden, which led to the interesting discovery of epigenetics. Genes aren’t everything, as it turns out). And yet, too many of us assume that therefore the reverse is true: that there is no scarcity of anything — some because of a blind faith in divine providence, and some a similarly blind faith in technological progress.

Our excesses already have measurable impacts, some of which are more severe than others. We caused ozone depletion, though to humanity’s credit the countries of the world managed to coöperate to rectify the problem. Our food supply is increasingly dominated by large agribusiness companies — Food, Inc. is a terrifying reminder of how far gone we are, with practices that torture animals, poison our land and food supply, and where GM contamination results in the victim being prosecuted for intellectual property violations, rather than the companies and the lack of proper regulation of GM use. And our carbon-burning lifestyle is causing our climate to get increasingly more erratic over the years.

We could use the transition from Mardi Gras to Ash Wednesday to contemplate a change in our lifestyle. Turn off that lightbulb when you leave the room. Set your electronic devices to sleep when inactive, and turn them off if you won’t be using them for a while. Don’t make symbolic changes that actually damage the environment more — such as turning in a decent used car for a new one that gets only slightly better mileage — but learn to drive more efficiently, and use public transport whenever possible. Eat less meat (especially those from large meat-packers), and avoid fast-food joints, who collectively created the demand for large meatpackers and thus the unhealthy industrialization of animal farming.

Some of these changes are costly, and will remain costly as long as government incentives favor our current agricultural regime. There were critical responses to the UU World’s call,  Thanksgiving 2008, to switch to organic turkey. We cannot be holier-than-thou in our effort to better ourselves, and must realize that for the poorer among us, the budget simply is not there. But we can act. By buying the right kinds of produce, thus sending the right signal to food producers and supermarkets (even Wal-mart is paying attention now). By writing our Congressperson or MP. By donating healthy food to soup kitchens and orphanages. By, if you’re Jamie Cullum, teaching people healthy cooking, and reforming prison diets.

And it’s not all about food, though, as Napoleon once said, an army marches on its stomach. Today marks the birthdays of Svante Arrhenius, the Swedish chemist who discovered electrolysis (1903 Nobel Prize in Chemistry) and formulator of the greenhouse law still in use today:

if the quantity of carbonic acid increases in geometric progression, the augmentation of the temperature will increase nearly in arithmetic progression.

ΔF = α ln(C/C0)

Fittingly, the discovery of electrolysis leads to the fuel cell, which might or might not form part of the solution in our impending transportation switch away from carbon-based fuels.


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