Back to School

It’s the beginning of another another academic year. In addition to teaching online courses, I am once again teaching Thermodynamics at Anderson University. I love teaching thermodynamics, because it is a difficult subject, but it explains so much about creation. Unfortunately, many scientists and even some engineers (like Bill Nye) don’t understand it. I hope that my students walk away with a solid grasp of the subject.

Of course, teaching at the university on top of my online courses will make me a lot busier than I should be, so I am not sure how much time I will have for blogging. I will try to write at least once a week, but we will see how that goes. For now, I hope that you enjoy this video, which is the demonstration I did for the first day of class. A variation of the first part of the demo (the aluminum foil heat engine) is in the last book of my elementary science series, Science in the Industrial Age. Students make the engine when they learn about Sadi Carnot, the father of thermodynamics.

Cool “New” Unexplained Phenomenon

An example of a STEVE event. This one happened on August 17, 2015. (click for credit)
Have you met STEVE? It’s a strange event that has been photographed by several people who spend a lot of time photographing auroras. One of them (Chris Ratzlaff) suggested the name “Steve,” which was inspired by the animated movie Over the Hedge. Apparently, one of the characters in the movie named something he didn’t understand “Steve.” When the scientific community began studying this phenomenon, they kept the name but made it more “scientific.” They called it STEVE for “Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.”

Since STEVE events happen where auroras are found, it is reasonable to think that they are related to auroras in some way. However, auroras are visible every night when you are at high latitudes and the viewing conditions are favorable. By contrast, STEVE events are visible only a few days each year, at least according to the photographers who have documented them. Also, auroras produce a glow that spreads wide throughout the night sky, while STEVE events produce ribbons of light.

So what causes these events? Currently, scientists can’t say. The initial study said they might be similar to auroras, which are caused by high-energy charged particles that have been trapped by earth’s magnetic field interacting with molecules in the upper atmosphere. This interaction gives the molecules excess energy, and they emit that energy in the form of visible light, mostly reds, greens, and blues. Scientists looked at satellite imagery that was taken during a documented STEVE event, and they did see charged particles moving at high speeds through the appropriate region of the atmosphere, but they couldn’t say for sure that they were related to the event.

Now, some of the authors of that study have published an analysis that indicates STEVE events are not very similar to auroras. They looked at imagery from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s polar orbiting satellites that happened to be over a documented STEVE event on March 28, 2008. It was in the perfect position to see if high-energy charged particles were interacting with the upper atmosphere during the event, and it saw none.

As a result, there is currently no explanation for what causes STEVE events. I look forward to seeing where the research goes on this!

The Global Warming Alarmists Were Wrong (Again)

The white corals in the picture have bleached (click for credit)

Corals are amazing animals that form reefs which are teeming with life. They eat things that are floating in the water around them, but they also have a mutualistic relationship with algae called “zooxanthellae.” The corals provide the algae with housing, and in exchange, the algae give the corals chemicals they need. It’s a wonderful system that allows both species to flourish.

However, there are times when this system breaks down. When corals become “stressed” (usually by a sudden change in temperature, the intensity of sunlight, pollution levels, etc.), the algae are expelled from the corals. The details of this process are still a mystery, but it usually causes the corals to turn white, as shown in the picture above. Because of that, this process is often called bleaching.

Earlier this year, The New York Times published an article entitled, Global Warming’s Toll on Coral Reefs: As if They’re ‘Ravaged by War.’ It stated:

Large-scale coral bleaching events, in which reefs become extremely fragile, were virtually unheard-of before the 1980s.

That’s the typical “party line” when it comes to those who don’t want to study the issue of global warming seriously. Something bad is happening now, it hardly ever happened in the past, and if we don’t do something about it soon, we are all going to die. Not surprisingly, it just isn’t true.

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Clouds that “Glow” in Twilight are Becoming More Common

Noctilucent clouds over Uppsala, Sweden (click for credit)

The picture above shows a phenomenon that can be seen during the summer by people who live at latitudes of 50-65 degrees. They are called noctilucent (“night shining”) clouds, and they appear to glow in the twilight sky. They aren’t actually glowing, and they aren’t really clouds, either. Instead, they are bands of ice crystals that are way above the clouds, in an upper part of the atmosphere called the mesosphere. There is very little water in the mesosphere, and it is extremely cold there. When conditions are right, however, what little water that exists there can freeze into tiny ice crystals, forming short-lived “clouds.”

Why do they appear to glow? Well, at twilight, the sun is below the curve of the earth, so you can’t see it directly. However, if you were up higher, you could still see it. Indeed, this video shows a drone observing the sunset at a height of 80 feet and then rising to 400 feet to see the sun set again. So even though you can’t see the sun once it sets, higher altitudes still “see” it. That means the sun’s light is still shining brightly on things that are high in the sky, including the ice crystals. Some of that light scatters off the crystals and heads to the earth. If you are at the right place on the earth and it is dark enough, you can see that light, and it looks like the light is coming from the “clouds” themselves. Here is an excellent time-lapse series that shows both noctilucent clouds and an aurora.

Why am I blogging about this phenomenon? Because this year has been an unusually good year for seeing it. Indeed, reports of these “glowing clouds” have tripled this year compared to last year. What’s causing it? According to Dr. Lynn Harvey of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, it’s because there is an unusual amount of water in the mesosphere this year. It is also a bit colder than normal. Combine those two effects and you have more ice crystals and therefore more noctilucent clouds.

Why is it wetter and colder this year in the mesosphere? We don’t really know. In fact, noctilucent clouds are a bit of a mystery in general, since they were first reported in the summer of 1885. Whether that means they just started forming then or just happened to be noticed then, we don’t know. However, most other striking atmospheric phenomena had been observed much earlier. Auroras, for example, were reported in ancient china and were named by Galileo in 1619. It’s hard to believe that a similar atmospheric phenomenon that can be seen at the same latitudes existed but remained unnoticed until 1885.

Of course, unlike auroras, noctilucent clouds are rare and short-lived. After all, they occur only in the summer and, in order to see them, it needs to be pretty dark, since sunlight overwhelms the small amount of light coming from the ice crystals. Thus, the sun has to be below the curve of the earth for the observer. However, once the sun is well below the curve of the earth, it no longer shines on the ice crystals in the mesosphere above the observer. This fact might have made them less likely to be observed and, even when they were observed, less likely to be believed, since they would “disappear” after a while.

So it may be that noctilucent clouds clouds are a fairly recent phenomenon caused by human activity, and it may be that whatever human activity is causing them is increasing their frequency. Of course, it may also be a natural phenomenon that ebbs and flows over time. We just don’t know. That’s the great thing about science. There always seem to be more questions than answers!

LED Lights Might Pose A Hazard for Vision

Wavelengths coming from various light sources (image modified from the Tosini 2016 article linked below)
A very good friend showed me an article from the University of Toledo. It reports on a study that demonstrates how blue light might be damaging to the light-sensing cells found in your eye. I didn’t know anything about this, so I decided to look into the research that has been done on the effects of blue light on vision. I found this excellent review article, which discusses what has been figured out so far. The short answer is that we don’t know anything for certain, but there is some evidence that long-term, chronic exposure to significant amounts of blue light could be damaging to your eyes.

Several animal studies have shown that exposure to blue light can increase the animal’s risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and other eye problems. However, studies on people haven’t been clear. Some studies have shown a relationship between long-term exposure to the sun’s light and AMD, and it is assumed that the blue light given out by the sun is the culprit. However, a case-controlled study in Australia indicated that it might not be exposure to the sun’s light that is causing the relationship. It indicates that sensitivity to glare and difficulty developing a tan are the actual indicators of higher AMD risk, and studies that show a relationship between the sun’s light and AMD might not be controlling properly for those variables.

The study that was discussed in the University of Toledo article linked above didn’t assess the damage blue light causes to human eyes. Instead, the authors assessed the damage on human cells. However, they didn’t use actual light-sensing cells from a human eye, because that’s not possible. They used HeLa cells, which are a line of cells that came from cancerous tissue taken from a woman named Henrietta Lacks more than 65 years ago. The cells continue to reproduce to this day, so this line of cells is often referred to as “immortal.” The story behind the acquisition of the cells is the topic of a very sad and interesting book as well as a pretty lousy movie.

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Pre-Kindergarten Education Might Cause Long-Term Disadvantages!

Many educators (and even more politicians) think that getting children into school early produces great educational benefits. However, the data suggest otherwise. Perhaps the most famous results come from the Head Start study by Puma and others. It found that while the Head Start preschool program produced some short-term benefits, those benefits disappeared for most of the students by third grade. Overall, then, the Head Start program had no lasting effect for most students.

To me, this makes perfect sense. After all, if you give a student some education before most of his or her peers, the student will be “ahead” when he or she starts kindergarten. However, since all the students are following the same curriculum, this “head start” doesn’t do much good, because in the end, the students with the advantage are held back. Rather than using the advantage to push them to learn even more, they are taught the same things that are being taught to the other children. As a result, the only real advantage is that the learning is easier at first. Also, since they have already been “socialized” into the group-learning mode used by schools, they don’t have to adjust to it. Once the others have adjusted, however, that benefit also goes away.

My publisher recently made me aware of another study that comes to an even less-promising conclusion. This study comes from the Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K program, a state-run pre-kindergarten (pre-K) program that focuses on children at risk. The authors followed a total of 2,990 students from kindergarten through 3rd grade, and the results weren’t in line with the expectations of the educators and politicians that promote pre-K education.

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Another Illustration of How Little We Know About Climate Forecasting

When you read about global warming, aka “climate change,” you often hear about climate models that tell us the world will reach dangerously high temperatures if people don’t sharply reduce their use of carbon-dioxide-emitting energy sources. However, these models are built using our current understanding of climatology, which is incomplete at best. As a result, there is a lot of uncertainty in their forecasts. Specifically, they seem to overstate any warming that has actually occurred so far.

Why is that? The simple answer is that we don’t understand climate science very well, and as a result, it is hard to predict what effects human activity will have on future climate. Scientists, however, need a more detailed answer. What exactly is wrong with our understanding of climate science? Christopher Monckton, Third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley thinks he has found one reason. Whether or not he is correct, his assertion illustrates how little we know about forecasting climate.

Now, of course, Viscount Monckton is not a climate scientist. He has a masters in classics and a diploma in journalism studies. He served as a Special Advisor to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and is and a well-known skeptic of the narrative that global warming is a serious problem that has been caused by human activity. Nevertheless, he has studied climate science extensively and thinks he has found a “startling” mathematical error that is common to all climate models. He is currently trying to get a paper that makes his case published in the peer-reviewed literature, but as the article to which I linked shows, the reviewers have serious objections to its main thesis.

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The Scourge of Postmodernism in Universities

The clock tower at a “college” where two biologists were the victims of postmodernism run amok. (click for credit)

I recently read an interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “First, They Came for the Biologists.” If you didn’t catch it, the title is an homage to the words of Pastor Martin Niemöller, who opposed the Nazis in Germany. He spent seven years in a concentration camp as a result. Essentially, he is saying that we must fight injustice even if we don’t think it will affect us, because ultimately, it will. The author of the article, Dr. Heather Heying, says that postmodernism is taking aim at science, and if we don’t stop it, we will all suffer.

Dr. Heying is a former professor of biology at The Evergreen State College, which doesn’t seem to be much of a college. Instead, it seems to be a place where views that go counter to a loud group of students will result in harassment and intimidation. If you don’t know Dr. Heying’s story (which actually begins with her husband, Dr. Bret Weinstein), you can read it from their perspective here.

Essentially, Dr. Weinstein opposed a campus-wide activity that he considered to be racist, and as a result, he was branded a racist. The situation quickly turned toxic, and the couple feared for their safety. They sued the university, which settled for $450,000 plus $50,000 in legal fees. The couple resigned from the university when the settlement was reached. You can read more from Dr. Heying’s perspective here and Dr. Weinstein’s perspective here.

The story is truly sad and makes me worry about the future of higher education in these United States. When students can make utterly false allegations that end up being believed, no university professor is safe, period. However, Dr. Heying takes it further than that, and honestly, I have to agree with her. In her Wall Street Journal article, she makes this profound point:

Postmodernism, and specifically its offspring, critical race theory, have abandoned rigor and replaced it with “lived experience” as the primary source of knowledge. Little credence is given to the idea of objective reality. Science has long understood that observation can never be perfectly objective, but it also provides the ultimate tool kit with which to distinguish signal from noise – and bias.

I have discussed the nonsensical nature of postmodernism before, but I don’t think I fully appreciated its danger until reading Dr. Heying’s article and learning about her and her husband’s experience at The Evergreen State non-College. If the disciples of postmodernism have their way, many more institutions of higher learning will become hotbeds of irrationality like that sad little campus. If you don’t believe me, read this chilling quote from her article. The man she is quoting is the president of The Evergreen State non-College:

[What] we are working towards is, bring ’em in, train ’em, and if they don’t get it, sanction them.

When someone who runs a supposed college is willing to say something like that, there is something terribly wrong with the state of higher education in these United States.

If I sat down and had a conversation with Drs. Heying and Weinstein, we would probably disagree on a great many things. However, we would be in full agreement when it comes to the real danger that postmodernism poses to higher education.