Cancer, deep-sea partnerships and the resented carbon-tax

 “We shouldn’t be looking for heroes, we should be looking for good ideas.”

-Noam Chomsky

Forgive me this indulgence, but rather than devote the usual 500 to 1200 words to a given topic, I would like to scan a trio of topics and ideas that have caught my attention in the past week.

  1. The mantra “everything causes cancer” is far-removed from the truth. Out of the literally millions of known mixtures, compounds and elements, less than 500 are proven or probable carcinogens. As children and young adults, many of us never suspected city air, processed meat and alcohol to be among the culprits. This unfortunately leads some of us to wave the white flag and adopt the erroneous generalisation. But that defeatist attitude is music to the ears of the carcinogens’ users and producers who refuse to acknowledge responsibility. Speaking of music,  sound is a form of energy, and along with radio waves and all the colours of the rainbow—none of those, unlike ultraviolet, x-rays and gamma, cause cancer.
  2. Something a little newer and more original. If as a teacher or student you hear of an oxidation-reduction partnership, the words might conjure up an image of people partnering up to do a redox lab. But until recently, not even the most specialized biochemists imagined that two different organisms were symbiotically working together to oxidize methane and reduce sulfate, respectively, in layers of sediment and rock under the sea floor. MethanogenOne of the microbes, a methanotroph which uses methane (CH4) as its energy and carbon source, reduces CH4 to hydrogen carbonate ion (HCO3) in the absence of oxygen. But the metal ions that the organism uses to pick up electrons lost by methane are not efficient enough. A sulfate-reducing bacteria comes to the rescue. It uses the electrons released by the oxidation of methane to reduce sulfate (SO42-) to sulfide (S2-). Its reward? It too obtains energy in the process.
  3. There have been riots in Paris in early December 2018 over the proposed fuel tax. Since France does not generate very much CO2 in generating electricity (70% of the country’s power comes from nuclear energy), it would make more sense for them to subsidise electric car purchases and taxing new gasoline- powered automobiles. I’m never one to defend internal combustion automobiles, but let’s bear in mind that the entire transportation sector including ships, trains, planes and automobiles account for only 14% of carbon emissions. 20152C_GHGSectors_GlobalAnd then what impact will higher fuel prices actually have on consumption and consequent emissions? Even if it doesn’t lower emissions immediately, there’s another layer of strategy behind a carbon tax. It creates a pool of funds which can can then be used as incentives to lower emissions. For example, the money can be used to set up charging stations for electric cars. In Quebec the carbon tax has created a fund of close to a billion dollars but as of December 2018, it has not been managed properly. The new CAQ government in this province is not looking to abolish the tax but is looking into ways of assuring to meet the 2020 goal of cutting emissions by 20% compared to 1990 levels.
    More carbon emissions from the violent protesters in Paris. From Newsweek, Dec 2 , 2018

    Governments, however, need to quickly use a comprehensive approach so that all emissions are addressed and abated. The current narrow-minded focus on taxation of fuel won’t cut it. This is exacerbated by the fact that environmental values are are not deeply held and shared by enough people. As a result every mantra: “eat less meat”, “drive less”, “preserve forests”, etcetera, gets misinterpreted as an authoritative order. And too many of us are so talented at cutting our noses to spite the face of government. As an alternative strategy, the federal government can nourish the roots of the environmental grass movement. I know schools are asked to do an awful lot these days. But most schools do next to nothing about climate change. Yet they seem to find the time to peddle an awful lot of electronics and student travel. Here’s a list of things schools can do to be proactive about climate change.(1) Encourage teachers to use public transit or electric cars and not fill the parking lot with 19th century inventions.

    (2) Compost cafeteria waste.

    (3) Reduce and reuse before dumping stuff into recycling bins.

    (4) Reward students for coming up with green ideas.

    (5) Serve beef sparingly in the cafeteria. Replace it with more chicken meals, which have a much lower carbon footprint.

    (6) Encourage local travel instead of flying or driving to remote destinations.

Nature Communications. Carbonate-hosted methanotrophy represents an unrecognized methane sink in the deep sea
Scientific American The Mystery of the Missing Molecules scientificamerican/journal/v319/n5/box/scientificamerican1118-32_BX1.html
(has more subsequent reactions)


Science: Larger than Economics, Smaller than Life

A month ago, almost 40 years later, I decided to resume something I started in high school and memorized the entire periodic table, an entirely useless feat. It started in the 1970s as an extension of a chemistry course requirement. We had to know the names, symbols and atomic numbers of the first twenty elements. cell-asian-elephantSo I decided to carry it a little further. It would get attention from peers because I would use it at Sweet Sixteen parties as an alternative to walking a straight line to prove that I was not drunk. 

Years later after some elements had disappeared from memory, reciting just the first 70 still impressed my high school kids. Yet now it’s not to impress them a little more that I learned the rest. It’s because for me there’s a good feeling that comes out of it. Why? Some of the mnemonics I use are quirky and somewhat creative.  A few are based on things I’ve learned gradually about the elements and their relationships. Our brains have an affinity for things that are related to previously stored facts and concepts. It’s why some of us recall names and statistics of professional athletes of the present, adding to the bank of even more useless information of the past.

But why was I drawn to chemistry in the first place? It does not depend on a special talent but on a personality quirk that makes it likely for some individuals to devote themselves to it. All of this brings me to a myth about science. As educators, we often believe that if science was more valued in society, we’d have more scientifically literate individuals. But it is already highly esteemed. Most high-achieving adolescents are persuaded into taking enriched courses of chemistry and physics. Large sums of money are spent by universities, industry and government on research, equipment and personnel. Even in my internet-less world of the 1970s, there were chemistry sets in department stores, science shows on TV and plenty of basic science books in the city and school library. And yet back then, pure science departments like chemistry and physics were relatively tiny in all universities across the planet. Biology ones were larger but only because they were filled with students who hoped to get into medicine after undergraduate studies. Now with the addition of even more science on TV, more publications of books and thousands of science youtube videos, web sites and blogs, nothing has changed. More importantly, there’s no evidence that scientific literacy in general has increased.

Why is science highly valued in the first place? The main reason it should be valued is because its experimental method of confirming or rejecting guesses is the best way of understanding how the natural world and technology operate. It’s slowly giving us more insight into the mechanisms of emotions, dreams, behavior and so forth. But it does not diminish the value of literature, music, the arts, philosophy and history, which will for a long time continue to explore what it feels like to go through the journey of life. There are people who think that religion and science are reconcilable, but I find that intellectually and spiritually, it is all those other things that I mentioned that complement science, not organized religion.

Science started as natural philosophy. Unfortunately too often in both industry and academia, science is now valued mostly because it’s tied in to ego and profit. To many, it is just another way of selling questionable goods and philosophies to a public with too little time or ability or motivation to probe into things more deeply. Moreover, science is embedded within a world whose relation between technology and humanity is deeply symbiotic but often not mutualistic. But in any world we can imagine or realize, science is as ineffective as religion if it promises a nirvana. 


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