Friday, February 3, 2012


Mismeasure of Man (1981) by Stephen Jay Gould

The Mismeasure of Man (1981) by the legendary Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould should be required reading for anyone considering to be a scientist. Though everyone would benefit a great deal from reading it.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Who's important?

This image has been floating around Facebook for a little while. I dig it. 

The caption reads on the left "If you don't know who these people are..." referring to images of scientists Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Nikola Tesla, & Charles Darwin. Scientist/science popularizer Carl Sagan. American founding father Thomas Jefferson. & Authors/political activists Christopher Hitchens & Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

The right caption reads "but you know who this is?" referring to a picture of Snooki, a drunk & horny woman made famous for the reality show Jersey Shore. Take a closer look at her drink if you haven't already. That pretty much sums up her & the show. 

The bottom caption, the punchline, reads "Congratulations. You're what's wrong with this world." 

It's a sentiment that I couldn't agree with more. This does a sweet job at criticizing the priorities of the American people. Major props to the creators of this image. Thanks to them for their service to the common good & efforts in waking us from the Great Mindfuck. If we choose more meaningful content to consume & start having real conversations about real things we would be much better off as individuals & as a people. Knowledge is power!

I instantly recognized almost everyone on the poster, which I know is more than most. I don't really watch TV anymore, but I am very interested in mass phenomena when it becomes unavoidable. References to Jersey Shore were so common that I was compelled to check it out. I found the show to be shallow & a waste of time, but it is entertaining with obvious reasons for its mass appeal. So I did recognize Snooki.

The only person I didn't know is Ali & I needed help identifying her. She's an interesting lady & I know of people who fought for the same cause. 

I obsessively study too many things & recognize it would be unfair of me to trash people who didn't know about as many of these featured people as I do. But if you didn't recognize at least Charles Darwin & Albert Einstein I beg you to branch out. You'll have a great time. There are so many fascinating things out there which are much more real & entertaining than any reality show provides. Do it for purely selfish reasons as it will surely make your life better. Your effort is thanks enough. 

When I looked at this poster the first time I couldn't help but think of the people on the left side & think of a few substitutions. In my opinion Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, & Antoine Lavoisier are each such fundamentally important scientific revolutionaries that their influence on mankind is forever undeniable. Also, if you need drama to be interested in something, these fellas sure had a heap of it. Galileo had a very famous fight with the Catholic Church. Lavoisier was executed during the French Revolution. And Newton is one of the weirdest dudes ever! Seriously, Isaac Newton is a freak show of epic proportions. 

I figure that the people who can identify at least a handful of those featured know who Galileo & Newton are. They are superstars in the truest sense. However, I would understand if these informed people didn't know Lavoisier because he is a bit more obscure & he takes a bit more explaining in order to understand. Part of me thinks it's a good thing that these 3 were not included. They all existed before photography & paintings don't seem to play well on the poster. Some people who can rattle off a few things about Thomas Jefferson don't recognize him because he is represented by a painting & not a photograph. Also, compared Galileo & Newton, Jefferson is pretty normal looking.

I don't know how the roster of people included was formed, but I do agree they are all people worth knowing. But there is someone whose absence I find particularly glaring due to his immense impact on the world as we know it. 

There is a man with several photographs who isn't on the poster but has had an immense impact on the 20th century & the modern world. From the industrialization of science, to its relationship with government, to fertilizers, pesticides, chemical warfare & pharmaceuticals - right or wrong, good or bad, he is responsible for it all. He's been called the 'patron saint of guns and butter', and rightly so. 

He has pretty much been deleted from the public memory, either by industrial propaganda or by incidental unfair treatment by the same blurbocracy of bastardizing bullshit that scrambles our brains & promotes people like Snooki. 

Here he is, pictured with one of his good friends, a young Albert Einstein. 

His name is Fritz Haber. 

Most of the time I see him referenced in popular media, he tends to be characterized as "a Jew killing Nazi Jew." This is incredibly unfair. It's an error I attribute to sloppy anachronistic misunderstanding of history exacerbated by the misuse of his products by the Nazis. He was German & a Jew by birth though he wasn't really concerned with religious matters. He was never a Nazi. He helped secure safe exits for many Jews from Germany before he himself had to flee his beloved homeland in order to save own life from the Nazis & was welcomed with open arms by the same people who founded the Jewish state of Israel in the wake of World War 2. 

It is true that Haber oversaw the massacre of thousands of people in a World War, but it was World War 1. After the Germans claimed to be attacked by chemicals they looked for a way to respond. So Haber personally oversaw the unleashing of poison clouds of chlorine gas carried by the wind to lay to waste everything in its path, resulting in high numbers of casualties (mostly French & Russian soldiers) & immense horror. Look at the pictures & you will see what I mean. 

This effort gave Haber greater standing in both the German government & German science & led Haber to research & develop more chemical weapons - including phosgene which is a more deadly efficient chlorine delivery system than even elemental chlorine gas - & also pesticides which have similar chemistry & were also needed in war time to rid insects from bunkers. 

One of his cyanide based pesticides, Zyklon B, was used years later in Nazi gas chambers against the Jews - an act that had nothing to do with Haber (who as I have already noted was forced to flee because of his own Jewish ancestry) except that he initially developed the product. In the end, Haber was in serious risk of having Zyklon B used on himself. Murderous asshole, hardcore patriot or both, Haber was certainly not a 'Jew killing Nazi Jew.'

If only being the father of pesticide chemistry (with pesticides everywhere now) & chemical warfare is not enough for you to think he should definitely be included on the poster, I can dig it. But there is much more Haber has done.

Nitrogen is a very important element with interesting chemistry which is important for the synthesis of everything from industrial fertilizers, to pharmaceuticals, to explosives, to A LOT of stuff. Luckily for us, roughly 80% of the fluid known as air is elemental nitrogen, which is diatomic - meaning nitrogen naturally combines with nitrogen to stabilize. Unluckily for us, it has a superstrong triple-bond which makes this readily available nitrogen extremely difficult for us to use. So nitrogen needed to be 'fixed' in order to make it more available for synthesis & Haber is the one who fixed it. 

Through a multi-staged process of slamming nitrogen with heat & pressure over an iron catalyst and injecting hydrogen gas the Haber-Bosch process of nitrogen fixation created ammonia, which is nitrogen connected to hydrogen instead of itself with relatively weaker bonds. It's the brute force method, but it works! Dwindling natural sources of useful nitrogen were made obsolete as an industrial source was now available which harvested air! Ever since, what has made nations powerful - including in terms of the strength of their war machines - has been their use of this process. 

Modern farming practices are flawed, wasteful, and illogical, but Haber's process has made it possible for industrial farming to keep up with demand for food. It has been estimated that the food needs of as many as half of the world's population could not be met if not for this process. 

Haber's science is not only responsible for the deaths of millions, but also for the very life of billions. It is also fundamentally responsible for the scores of products which requires nitrogen to make. If that doesn't make him more important in your mind than Snooki or even say a Christopher Hitchens I don't know what could.

Friday, January 27, 2012