A More Interesting Calendar

There are trite ways of obtaining the date: looking at a cell phone, watch or conventional calendar. But if one is willing to sacrifice a little precision for something more in tune with the living world, one can simply observe our natural surroundings for often-ignored cues.

Smooth_HawksbeardI know it’s about mid-August from seeing the first ripe blackberries in our garden. Plums are purple but still firm and green inside; it isn’t time to bite into them just yet if we’re seeking their eventual blend of aromas and  sweetness. On hot, sunny days, we hear cicadas’ crescendos. Even in the cracks of pavement stones, terpene-filled thyme is fully grown and flowering. So-called empty lots are colored with the violet splash of blooming chicories and with the yellow taraxanthins of hawksbeards, which people mistake for dandelions. The crickets have started to sing at night for about a week. Also at our latitude, an hour after sunset, the length of the Northern Cross is in the northeastern sky, almost parallel to the horizon.

More confirmation comes in a simple mathematical form, from the time elapsed between sunrise and sunset: 14 hours and 8 minutes on August 14th, at the 45th northern or southern latitude. This implies that the days are approximately as long here, 55 days prior to the summer solstice, as opposed to that same number of days after. But judging from the temperatures and state of the surrounding vegetation, no one would mistake April 27th for today’s date. ( The date is probably off by a few days because the earth does not move around the sun at a constant speed.)

It’s good to break out of the role of being exclusively a food consumer and participate instead as a producer. Next month when carotenoids and anthocyanins get exposed in poplars and maples respectively, signalling the presence of a new month, we will contribute to the smells of September by cooking and preserving tomato sauce and by crushing grapes and letting them ferment. Mid-September is also marked by the presence of the beautiful Orion above the southeastern horizon, just before the storybook blue of dawn gets bleached away by the rising sun.

Orion’s belt and the star-forming region known as Orion’s Nebula. Of the three prominent stars making up the belt, the middle one, Alnilam is the most distant of the trio.

One of my early morning photos of the constellation focused on the belt and the star-forming region known as Orion’s Nebula. Contrary to what we may presume, the trio of stars comprising the belt don’t lie in an equidistant plane from us. The lowest one at the left is Alnitak and is closest to Earth at a distance of 250.6 parsecs. The middle one, Alnilam, is the most distant of the belt-stars at 411.5 parsecs or 1342 light years away. We see it now in 2016 as it was in the year 674 when the first glass windows were placed in English churches. We see the third star Mintaka as it was in the year 1100, which unfortunately marked the end of the golden age of Islamic science. It was also when people were relying a lot more on nature for identifying the months.


Why Are There Acids In the World?

 acid_witchAcids form by burning a non-metallic substance like carbon, sulfur, nitrogen or a witch and then adding the product to water. (Witches, as you know, should only be burnt if it’s their wish to be cremated.) The process can occur with or without technology. If sulfur dioxide formed by burning coal or roasting ores is not filtered and turned into gyprock, it will meet such a fate. Excess acids in the atmosphere worsen respiratory diseases. But some of the carbon dioxide from respiration has, for eons, become carbonic acid and played a vital role in the carbon cycle. Carbonic acid dissolves minerals from rock and serves as a source of bicarbonate ion, which is not only used by shell-creating organisms but by cells and organisms as a protective buffer against excess acid. Any acid, has properties that differ from those of water. Acids interact with protein receptors on the tongue and taste sour and do a great job at conducting electricity.

Many metals like magnesium and zinc will surrender loosely-held valence electrons to the protonhydrogen ions of acids, which in turn will release neutral hydrogen gas. The hydrogen ion, H+, is really a naked proton, piggybacking on a water molecule forming a hydronium ion, symbolized as H3O+.  But for every pair of electrons that becomes available from a metal in contact with the acid, two naked protons leave their respective water molecules and bond themselves to form the H2 gas that bubbles out. The bubbles escape at a rate that’s proportional to the concentration of H+ or “nudity” in the solution.

leafAcids maintain the color of some compounds, most notably those of the red pigments in roses, apples and autumn leaves. They also remove the fuchsia from the reaction between oven cleaner and a former ingredient of a laxative (phenolphthalein). Naked protons have the ability to alter chemical bonding and the associated energy states of electrons in molecules; then light photons of a different frequency are needed to promote electrons.cherry

Most people do not realize that acid forms in every plant when water splits up to form oxygen as electrons flow to light-excited chlorophyll molecules. The subsequent acidic gradient between membranes of the cells’ chloroplasts —essentially a voltage— leads to the formation of ATP, which drives all energy-requiring reactions in plants, except for those directly stimulated by visible light.  Contrary to popular belief, lightning and ultraviolet were probably not the energy sources of primordial life. What’s more likely was a much simpler mechanism that made use of the potential energy of protein gradients.

All plants and vegetables are acidic because their cell vacuoles concentrate acid to activate enzymes that quickly degrade plant material when tissue is ruptured. In fact, the vast majority of foods are acidic; the few that are slightly above neutral pH include lobster and shrimp. Eating acidic foods does no harm to the stomach. The concentration of its acid is ten to a million times stronger than any fruit or vegetable, so there is virtually no change to its pH after one eats several fruits.

rustIs there a substance that is the antithesis of an acid? Yes. It’s called a base or an alkaline product. Bases are bitter compounds formed by the reaction between water and a burnt or oxidized metal. They negate the effect of acids by converting the naked protons back to water. This happens because H+ and the ion produced by bases (OH )neutralize each other to form water. Bases happen to form while a metal such as iron rusts. Does this imply that acid can help prevent rusting? Unfortunately not! The initial product of iron corrosion forms a basic coating (Fe(OH)2) on the iron which temporarily slows down further corrosion. But the coating’s negative ion can be displaced or neutralized by salt’s chloride or acid, respectively. In either case, rusting is accelerated.


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