EMPTY

On this page - little bits of wisdom (or otherwise) that don't fit anywhere else.

Why this fashion for 'non-Christian' first names?
For example, Ben Fogle has called his son 'Ludo'. Well, if I were starting again I could call my son 'Snakes & Ladders' and my daughter 'Tiddleywinks'.

The Ageing Process

This might look like a list but actually it is a "digital essay", or you might prefer "quantum essay". This new method of composing prose is ideally suited to the auto-format facilities of computer-controlled word processing or the list facility of HTML. Am I serious here?

Ageing: 2012


The following preceded the above.
Do you think I am obsessed with age? Well, isn't everyone?

On reaching a certain level of maturity.

It seems I have reached a stage where I now count the months as once I counted the weeks. A year passes in a period which subjectively feels as three or four months used to feel. When this time around I climbed to the loft to get out the Christmas decorations my whole body felt the repetition of the action, and I experienced the sensation that I had only just climbed up there to put it away from the last time. I am somewhat jolted every time I clip my finger- or toe-nails, in that I always initially imagine them to be growing ever more quickly, until I remember that it is an illusion due to the constant acceleration of subjective time.

It might be supposed that under this condition of living in a condensed time scale, it may be assumed that the end is not merely nigh but looming; and that I might as well meet it head on. But the strange thing is that I am not immediately conscious of the brevity of my remaining life expectancy. Contemplation of it creates no great sense of urgency. Intellectually, the future is finite but subjectively it remains almost infinite. In a sense this is true. My consciousness will, I tell myself, reach to the end of time. I work at convincing myself of this.

Of course, present time is the only tangible reality. It is where we always are, always have been and always will be. The future is simply the present anticipated. The past is only a mental image viewed here and now. I am aware that the present moment progresses but by and large I am content to progress along with it. I might look forward to something loosely planned for tomorrow but then find that I can just as easily continue looking forward to it indefinitely. It is not that tomorrow never comes, it is more a case of it always being there, imminent and attainable but quite satisfying as the subject of continued anticipation.

I anticipate writing more of this tomorrow...

On the strangeness of water

After the magazine ‘Oldie’ published a pseudo-scientific article about the strange properties of water, I wrote to them, “I imagine myself shouting to God, ‘Give me a sign so I can believe’ and God roars back ‘For crying out loud, you’ve seen what I did with water, what more do you want?’”

Water is commonplace stuff, isn’t it? What is so strange about it? Well, in the first place, its commonness. How many materials are there in the temperature range of our natural world which exist as liquid? Water is the only one in substantial quantities. Alcohol and acetic acid do exist but only trace amounts as a result of fermenting fruit juices. Enough to make a monkey drunk, perhaps, but only human activity can produce liquids other than water in quantity. Even across the Universe most materials (elements and compounds) are either solids or gases. Liquids only occur as a result of extremes of temperature or pressure.
So here’s the science: Water is ‘H-two-O’ and thus could be regarded either as a hydride of oxygen or as an oxide of hydrogen. The elements surrounding oxygen in the periodic table of elements - nitrogen, fluorine, phosphorus, sulphur and chlorine - all combine with hydrogen to produce gases under standard conditions. Oxides of certain of these are gases and others are solids. The oxides of carbon (the element which is the basis of the chemistry of life) are gases. The commonest constituent of air, i.e. nitrogen, forms several oxides all of which are gases and its hydride is a gas (ammonia).
The reason for water being the odd one out is that within the molecule of the oxygen-hydrogen compound (water), oxygen attracts electrons much more strongly than hydrogen, resulting in a net positive charge on the hydrogen atoms, and a net negative charge on the oxygen atom. These atomic charges give each water molecule a net dipole moment. Electrical attraction between water molecules due to this dipole pulls individual molecules closer together, making it more difficult to separate the molecules and therefore raising the boiling point. This attraction is known as hydrogen bonding. It gives water all its other strange properties, some of which make it integral to life.
Perhaps you have tried that trick of floating a needle on water (old needles, that is. New ones are not as well made and more bulky). This demonstrates the high surface tension of water, which is due to the hydrogen bonding. It allows insects to walk on water (no, it doesn’t work for larger water walkers) and makes it possible for sap to rise up plant stems to heights which would be impossible for any other liquid.
Hydrogen bonding is also responsible for another of those properties of water which make it critical for life. When a liquid cools to the point where it changes to solid, it is normal for it to become more dense and sink. This is a fact which is not quite familiar to many of us because we are so accustomed to water floating as it solidifies. Very strangely, water is at its most dense at 4°C but does not freeze until its temperature drops to 0°C. As the temperature of water falls it becomes more dense and sinks but as it falls below 4°C near the surface, it expands and rises to freeze at the surface. So water in the depths of a lake can not freeze nor fall below 4°C in normal circumstances. The importance of this in our living world is obvious.
And yet there is more. Water has an unusually high specific heat capacity which means that it takes a lot of heat to raise its temperature and in addition it requires a lot of heat to vaporize it. These two unusual properties allow water to moderate Earth's climate by buffering large fluctuations in temperature. It further helps to drive the Earth’s weather by means of the oceans’ currents.
In chemistry, water has unique properties as a solvent of many organic and inorganic compounds, causing suitable conditions for chemical reactions to occur – noteably in plants and the bodies of animals. (see ‘On the chemistry of life on Earth’, below.)
It is difficult to envisage life existing elsewhere in the Universe without the help of water. All the above properties are so essential to Earth life forms, both in terms of origin and continued survival, that it seems unlikely that any other medium could provide a similar function. Carbon, not water, is the basis of life on Earth, with its very complex chemistry in the temperature range of our planet, but water is the medium which supports it on all levels from the global scale, at its origin and through geological ages, and down to the microscopic life of our body cells. Even an agnostic might suspect that it was positively designed to do so.

On the chemistry of life on Earth

There is a branch of chemistry called ‘organic’. That which is not organic is called, as you might expect, inorganic. To give an idea of what these two branches include, the following are inorganic compounds or elements:

salt, household bleach, marble, all metals, the several gases of the air, water


The organic group includes:

alcohol, sugar, petrol, paraffin, all plastics.


Organic chemistry is the chemistry of carbon compounds but not all carbon compounds. Carbon itself (charcoal, graphite, diamond) is not organic. Neither is chalk, snail shells, egg shells, which are all forms of calcium carbonate where ‘carbonate’ combines carbon and oxygen. Organic compounds typically have certain other elements combined with carbon – hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, chlorine and others. But perhaps you will more appreciate the difference by realising that the only organic compounds in the Earth’s crust are those strata which have been formed by the decomposition of ancient life – coal from plants and oil or natural gas from living creatures. (It is from these deposits that we obtain ‘petrochemicals’ which are the primary source of all our plastics). The rest of the rocks, made up of crystalline inorganic minerals, originated from the Earth’s mantle, i.e. the molten magma below the crust. So all organic chemicals on Earth have been produced in living organisms, both plant and animal.
We and all other living creatures are busy organic chemical factories with a compexity which surpasses the workings of any of our industries. But such complexity demands very tightly controlled conditions. All naturally occurring organic compounds decompose under extreme heat. That is, of course, why wild fire is so catastrophic. At the other extreme of temperature, the chemistry of life becomes too slow in the cold so that the more highly developed organisms die. Ourselves, for example. Life on Earth could only have risen to the highly organised level that includes intelligence and consciousness in an environment where the temperature range has remained stable throughout geological ages. That range has to be in which water exists as liquid and amazingly, water itself maintains that range as described above in ‘On the strangeness of water’.
Temperatures out in space vary from the ‘furnaces’ of the stars to the extreme cold of interstellar space. It is true that organic compounds can occur in space (they have been found on comets and in meteorites which have landed on Earth). But they are unreactive. They just exist. They can not enter into the highly active chemistry of life without a stable environment with controlled temperature and water to carry their reactions. This is not to say that we can not, with a stretch of imagination, envisage life in other situations and based on the chemistry of some element other than carbon. Jupiter, for example, has a massive volume of gases which are fluid enough and dense enough to provide a medium for life. But we have as yet no evidence to support this notion, nor of any life whatever other than on Earth.