Calculating the value of pie.

piOf all the obnoxious and unpopular universals we have to deal with – gravity, conservation of momentum, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, the speed of light in a vacuum, the way coffee never tastes as good as it smells – the one that seems to be the hardest for most of us to accept is entropy.

Just when we think we’ve gotten a handle on things, figured out how to survive, how to be happy, how to get through the day, we discover that the universe has marched on and the situation has changed. Suddenly all the systems and workarounds that we rely upon to keep us sane no longer work the way we expect them to. The rules have changed on us. Loved ones die, things break down, the places that are important to us become strange and different. “For no reason!” we insist, red-faced and frustrated, but in fact there is a reason: simple entropy.

I own a car that is now entering into its sixteenth year of life. I don’t drive it much, and I take care of it to the best of my (admittedly limited) ability, but nobody’s ever going to mistake it for a new vehicle. The headliner is pulling loose, the paint is dinged, the driver’s-side window no longer goes up and down: entropy. Even if I had shrink-wrapped the car sixteen years ago and stored it in a climate-controlled bunker in the desert, it would still not be the same car it was when it first rolled off the VW assembly line in Puebla, Mexico. Plastics deteriorate, fabrics sag and pull, the same chemical and mechanical processes that created the materials and parts continue long after the papers are signed and the keys handed over, turning gaskets into ash, warping delicate fixtures, and disabling sensitive electronics.

One of the most important features of entropy is its adherence to what is known as “the arrow of time”. This is to say that entropy, unlike any other measurable quantity in our universe, only works one way: things break down with the passing of time, going from more structured, more organized, to less. A muffin, a Maserati, or a man will, given enough time, be reduced to component atoms, and the carbon in an oatmeal muffin is absolutely identical to, and interchangeable with, the carbon in my red blood cells. That carbon will not spontaneously reorganize itself into a bird or a pot roast, not without the expenditure of enormous energy and even more time — during which everything else is still sliding into oblivion.

At absolute zero, -459.67 degrees Fahrenheit (-273.15 degrees Celsius, zero Kelvin and Rankine), everything stops. All activity in the sub-atomic world of electrons and protons ceases, and matter becomes inert and unchanging. This is, however – like the perfect marriage or consumer-friendly air travel – an imaginary state: in the real universe, nothing achieves absolute zero for long. Even in deepest space, beyond the light of any star, the background radiation left over from the Big Bang keeps everything percolating away at about four degrees Kelvin. Things slow down Out There, but they don’t stop. Here, in the world of light and air and heat that sustains us, entropy churns along at a pretty frantic pace. We can irradiate our tomatoes until they glow in the dark, persecute termites and mildew and dry rot with all the passion and inventiveness at our disposal, but in the end, the leftover pasta sauce goes furry and green, the shower curtain has to be replaced every August, and the tires on that bicycle you haven’t taken out of the garage since the Reagan administration crumble away to nothing.

 *  *  *

Make a pie on Sunday, and then eat a slice of it every day thereafter. At some point you will discover that the dish is empty, and there’s no more pie. This is irritating, but it’s not the fault of immigrants, or healthcare reform, or political correctness: it’s just that all pie is finite, you ate all your pie, and sooner or later you have to either make a new pie or find something else to snack on. You have to change. You have to do something different. No rhetoric, no rallies, no ranting on cable news is going to make that pie last forever. The universe moves on; things are consumed, becoming something else; life happens.

I wish I still had the hair and teeth and knees I had at twenty. I wish there were still places on Earth that were represented on the maps by big glamorous empty areas marked “Terra Incognita” and “Here there be dragons”. I wish a new Chrysler Imperial cost $1,500, and doctors made house calls. I wish I could read “The Haunting of Hill House” for the first time, again and again and again.

I wish a lot of things, but the universe really doesn’t give a damn what I wish – the universe has much more important things to do.

So, what are my options? Obviously, pretending that entropy just isn’t happening is not very helpful. Nor is simply throwing up my hands and locking myself into the basement to wait for everything to grind to its messy and inevitable end. Punish the Jews, or the Muslims, or the gays, or the poor, or the people in the big fancy house down the street for the fact that my pie didn’t last as long as I had hoped it would? None of these things is going to make the tiniest bit of difference in the end; I’ll just be making life more difficult for people who are probably no more to blame for my bad knees and thinning hair than the Queen of Sheba. Things are going to change. Tomorrow will never be exactly like yesterday. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just the way the universe works. I can learn to deal with it, change with it, or I can shoot myself in the head before entropy has a chance to wind things up for me. My choice.

For the moment, however, here we are. I’m still going on and on about all sorts of things, and you’ve actually managed to stay with me all the way to here. So sit with me for a bit longer. We’ll share some of my pie.


An insane pronouncement.

Copernicus_solar_systemLet’s suppose you’re doing last Sunday’s crossword puzzle.

You’re stumped on seven down: a five-letter word for “indistinct”. There are a couple of possibilities here, but the one that pops into your mind first is “fuzzy”, so you drop that in, very faintly, in pencil.

Okay, now what? Fifteen across, a six-letter word for “mystery”, is now coming up “enizma”, which is obviously wrong. A moment’s thought gives us a 99.9% certainty that we should be seeing “enigma” in that slot, but that gives us “fugzy” for seven down, our original problem clue: once again, it’s safe to assume that something’s not clicking.

What to do? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that “fuzzy” isn’t working, so out comes the thesaurus.

Let’s see: “Blurry”? That gives us “enirma”, and we’re not having any of that. “Indefinite”? Too many letters. “Soft”? Too few.

Here we go: “Vague”. Pencil it in, and … yes! It fits. We fill in a few of the blanks around it and we see that everything works.

. . .

The scientific method is like that crossword puzzle. There are some things you’re positive about, some you’re reasonably sure you’ve figured out correctly, and some you just can’t quite pin down, but the important thing is that everything interconnects, so a piece of the puzzle that’s clearly wrong will begin to stand out pretty quickly as the rest of the clues are filled in.

Individual facts, like the words in the crossword, can be tried, rejected, accepted, or replaced, but what matters in the end is the internal consistency of the entire structure, and the way the whole puzzle evolves and solidifies as more and more blanks are filled in. “Fuzzy” was perfectly acceptable until “enizma” came along; then it became clear that there was an error somewhere, because the bigger pattern wasn’t holding together.

Until Nicolaus Copernicus overturned the applecart in the sixteenth century, the generally accepted view of the solar system placed the earth at the center, with the sun, moon and planets orbiting around it. This system worked fine for centuries, but as time passed and the observed data began to fill in more and more blanks, problems appeared. To make the system fit what we could actually see happening in the sky, the orbits of all the heavenly bodies had to be incredibly complex. Mars and Jupiter needed to stop dead and then go backward from time to time; eclipses could only be explained by mysterious invisible objects casting shadows at odd angles; the moons of Jupiter and Saturn had to perform amazing spirals and loop-the-loops.

All the blanks in the crossword had words in them, but the answers weren’t making any sense.

Copernicus looked at the problem and realized that maybe “fuzzy” wasn’t the right word for seven down (figuratively speaking). He made a very simple adjustment in the prevailing system: he moved the sun into the center, and the planets into orbit around it, with their own moons orbiting them in turn. Now, suddenly, all of the orbits were ordinary ellipses, smooth and steady; eclipses were nothing more than shadows cast by one object on another; and the positions of all the bodies could be predicted centuries in advance by calculations any educated person could understand. It was no longer necessary to accept “enizma” as a word.

Those who know that the consensus of many centuries has sanctioned the conception that the earth remains at rest in the middle of the heavens as its center, would, I reflected, regard it as an insane pronouncement if I made the opposite assertion that the earth moves.”   – Nicolaus Copernicus

Even Copernicus didn’t have all the answers. With the passage of time, we’ve developed more sophisticated tools with which to observe our universe, and we’ve found questions that would have crippled the thinkers of the Renaissance. In the sixteenth century no one was equipped to measure the gravitational interactions between and among the planets; we didn’t know anything about how spacetime itself was organized, or the subtle effects of solar cycles and nearby stars on planetary orbits; the very size and shape of the universe could only be guessed at.

But still, even today, we can build on what Copernicus gave us all those years ago: we don’t have to try to come up with some elaborate excuse to allow us to use “enizma” for fifteen across. We can use logic and common sense to resolve the dilemma, and from there we can move on to new questions, and search for better answers to old ones.

In religion, no one questions the unreasonable answer or the wildly complicated explanation. We just accept that “enizma” is correct, even if it doesn’t seem to make the least bit of sense, because that’s what faith is: accepting without the need to understand.

The fundamental truth of science, on the other hand, is that there are no fundamental truths: we observe, we theorize, we experiment, and when we find a model that works, we build from there, knowing that it’s best to use a pencil, because we may still have to go back and change an early answer based on what we’ve learned since.

And that, dear reader, is why I love science. An enigma is a challenge to be met, a question for which each new answer always leads to bigger and more exciting puzzles demanding to be solved — and if we’re willing to stop at “enizma”, we’ll never have the opportunity.


Tick, tock, tick, tock …

Ames Hazmat

How about a round of badminton while we wait for the burgers to come off the grill?

Yes, it’s that time again. Winter is finally over, Ice Season is melting into slushy, gritty memories, and we’re moving into that other half of the year: Tick season.

Here in the Ozarks, tick season runs from about the first week in April through the end of December, with occasional outbreaks in January, February, and March. By mid-May roving hordes of the little monsters will be moving through the underbrush like piranhas with legs, armored specks of concentrated evil seeking whom they may devour.

We’re all becoming pretty current on the latest tick-borne diseases in humans, and the toll on pets is equally terrifying. Repellants, foggers and sprays fill the air like morning mist; gatherings of the beautiful people are aromatic with eau de permethrin, and the rest of us bathe in Deet as if were Chanel No. 5.

The awful truth, however, is that nothing seems to work: we cover ourselves with “Deep Woods Off” to cross the lawn to the mailbox, and by the time we get back to the front door with the junk mail our shoelaces are seething with activity.

At the risk of betraying an obsession, I will say that I have written on the subject of ticks before, focusing a little more on what they are rather than what they do:

What to do? Well, there are, in fact, two chemicals that are widely used to deal with ticks around the home:  N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET for short), and permethrin.

Like the atom bomb and Agent Orange, DEET was invented by the US military in the latter stages of World War II; jungle warfare had taken a toll on soldiers who were not acclimated to the wide range of insect-borne diseases that they encountered in the Pacific and Asia, and the army wanted a single product that would defend against an assortment of pests. DEET is effective against the worst offender, the mosquito, not just repelling the creatures but killing them on contact. Unfortunately, it is only effective while still wet: once the application has dried completely, the hapless jungle warrior might just as well be slathered up with carrot puree. Furthermore, DEET is a powerful solvent, and will destroy rayon, nail polish, and spandex (“Holy holes in the tights, Batman!”) and is known to have toxic side effects on a very small percentage of humans. Mosquitos also lose their susceptibility to it after the first exposure, so it becomes less effective the longer you use it.

And ticks? Well, they don’t exactly slurp down DEET like it was coconut pie, but it might as well be: unless the tick actually ingests the chemical it has no effect, and the DEET is not recommended for application directly to a person’s skin, which is the only place where the tick would ingest it — in the act of biting, which would seem to defeat the purpose.

Permethrin is somewhat more effective against ticks: it kills on contact, and it continues to work even after it has dried; it will even remain active after repeated washings. In small doses it is not known to be toxic to humans — although, as with any insecticide, infants and breastfeeding mothers should avoid it, just to be safe. Toilet paper tubes stuffed with cotton that has been soaked in permethrin can be placed in locations frequented by mice, who use the cotton for nesting material, killing ticks at one of the early stages in their development without harm to themselves.

The downside? Permethrin is very harmful to cats even in small doses: flea and tick medications containing permethrin that are perfectly safe for dogs will kill cats outright. Permethrin also does not discriminate between “good” and “bad” arthropods: it will kill the mosquitos and ticks, but also the honeybees and spiders. If it gets into water it poisons fish, frogs and other aquatic life, and in large doses it can harm humans and other mammals. It persists in the environment for up to ten weeks, so repeated applications can result in dangerously high concentrations in and around the home.

This flyer from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (in PDF format) provides some pretty detailed information, including preventive measures, comparisons of insecticides and repellents, and treatment for tick bites. (The data used to compile this guide comes originally from the EPA, so if you’re a Republican you won’t want to read it.)

So chemistry still hasn’t provided a magic bullet. The old-fashioned approach is still the best: light-colored clothes covering the entire body so that ticks can be easily seen and brushed off, tightly-woven socks, pants tucked into boots — all those things that we so look forward to when the weather reaches 98 degrees with 85% humidity. Contrary to popular belief, ticks don’t drop out of the trees onto their prey — they can only see a few inches, so you’ve got to be on top of them before they’ll make their move — they simply crawl to the extreme end of leaves and twigs and wait for something to brush against their perch to they can grab on for dinner and a free ride. This means that the worst infestations can be avoided simply by keeping to the open trails, avoiding tall weeds and grass, and staying well away from underbrush. Tough rules to follow when you’re trying to mow the lawn or weed the garden, but every little bit helps. Ticks usually develop in stages on small, medium, and large hosts, so providing permethrin-treated bedding material for mice and packrats (you’ve got them, don’t fool yourself), fencing out deer, and keeping dogs and cats indoors will help break up the life cycle.  Chickens and guinea hens eat ticks, so keeping a few fowl around the back door doesn’t hurt; opossums, although unlovely, are also known to nibble on the little devils.

So pull on your gumboots, tuck in your white jeans, duct-tape your gloves to your shirt cuffs, snuggle that collar up tight — and get out there and enjoy the great outdoors!

Journal: Thursday, September 12

My friend Sebastian, in better times

My friend Sebastian, in better times

My best friend Sebastian died this afternoon, snuggled up in my arms, whimpering and snuffling, trying to purr as I scratched the back of his neck. He had been suffering for several days from a very high fever that evolved into a rampaging anemia that turned his skin yellow and robbed his blood of the ability to transport enough oxygen to keep him alive, no matter how hard he struggled to breathe. He was frightened, and in pain, and he knew that, just like always, I was there to make it all better. Instead, I held him while the veterinarian injected him with a quick, silent poison that ended his life within seconds of my giving her my assent.

I know, intellectually, that death is a fact of life: I’ve outlived friends, said goodbye to family, and buried literally dozens of pets over the last fifty-five years. I know that we all die, and that a world in which we didn’t would be a grotesque and horrible place; I know that immortality could never by anything but a cancer, changing and deforming the very organisms it preserves.

Emotionally, however, every loss still hurts, burning with a different mix of denial, guilt, grief, anger, and loss. Emotionally, that elegant intellectual understanding of the proper sequence of birth and life and death and new birth smells like nothing more than a steaming bucket of excrement.

As human beings, we have always seen ourselves as perched atop the pinnacle of creation: second only to God; stewards of the Garden; the naked ape clinging to the very highest branches of the tree of life. For reasons too complex and too deeply-seated for me to ever articulate, it is important to me that the creatures in my care live without fear, without pain. I know perfectly well how artificial an environment that is: any living being in a natural state would not survive a day if he — or she, or it — did not know fear and pain, know them and understand them at a visceral level. Still, I feel the need to shelter my pets, to prove that I am greater than the arbitrary whims of nature. I defy entropy, thereby demonstrating that I am beyond it, above it, superior to it. If I were honest with myself, I would admit that what I’m doing is more about broadening and deepening my own sense of self-worth, my notion of my importance in the grand scheme of things, than about the animals, but if I were honest with myself, I wouldn’t be in this position in the first place, trying to drag the universe down these strange and difficult paths.

Sebastian depended on me, he depended on my omniscience and my super-natural authority to make his world a happy and secure one. He depended on me, and I failed him. The fact that success was not even remotely possible means nothing, at least for today: he knew that I would always make things right for him, he trusted me, and all I could do was end his life. I grieve for him, for the absence of him in my day to day life, but I’m also angry, outraged that the god-human image of myself that Sebastian and I created between us proved to be such a frail and useless fraud.

I did my best for Sebastian, or at least the best I believed I could do at the time. I know this. I really do. Eventually I will go beyond knowing and I will actually believe it, and the guilt and the anger will diminish, and the grief will mature, and only the loss will remain, the faint smell of smoke left after the fire burns itself out; and with time, even that will mellow, and I will remember Sebastian with pleasure and not with the gut-wrenching reminder that he is no longer in the next room, curled up in a chair, waiting for me.

But that’s tomorrow, or the day after. Not today; no, not today.

And you find yourself
In a great house with many windows open
Running from room to room, not knowing where to look out.
Because the pines will vanish, and the mirrored mountains
And the chirping of the birds.
The sea will empty, shattered glass, from North to South.
Your eyes will be emptied of the light of day
As suddenly, all at once, the cicadas will fall silent."

(Excerpted from “Thrush”, by George Seferis)


On the Surface.

A lot of my photography tends to get pretty close to things: flowers, bugs, all the little odds and ends that show up in a place like this. This morning I decided to take the process a step further, and I looked for those images that nature provides that aren’t quite so obvious from a human eye level. Rocks, tree bark, moss, fur: these are all things that take on a whole new meaning when you get down on your hand and knees and really look… Continue reading