Carbon: Boon and Bane

This is a (very) long essay written in 2009 about carbon, what it is, why it makes for such a usable and abundant energy source, and what that means for the health of the planet. It was originally intended as a chapter in a long-abandoned book. Frankly, it is a bit scattered but I don’t have the time or patience to make it flow better. Bad, bad, Will.

Some editing was done to repair the ravages of my poor writing skills, and to fix numerous mistakes in spelling, syntax, and grammar, not that it did any good.  I have lots of this sort of essay in my quiver. Since I rarely have useful new ideas I suspect I will be going to the well of my previous prolificity more often, as I attempt to make this blog more relevant. Here we go.

 

Carbon is element number 6 on the periodic table of elements. It has an atomic weight of 12. This means that it consists of a nucleus consisting of 6 protons and 6 neutrons.  So that it is chemically and electrically stable it is surrounded by 6 electrons, which balance the electric charge of the 6 protons. These electrons are configured in two levels, the first with 2 electrons and the second with 4 electrons. Most of us are aware, from high school chemistry, that the first electron level has room for 2 electrons and the second electron level has room for 8 electrons. Therefore, because carbon has four electrons in the second level it is considered tetravalent, which means it has four spaces on the second electron level that can be filled by electrons from other elements when combining to form the molecules of a compound.

Carbon is the smallest atom which is tetravalent. This is significant when we consider that any tetravalent atom, such as carbon, with it’s four available spaces on the second electron level, is likely to form any number of diverse, yet very stable compounds. Reality shows us that this is true, as the millions of carbon compounds that exist on earth form a large number of the compounds known to science. These compounds are diverse because the available spaces for electrons allow for a great number of possible atomic combinations. They are stable electrically because on the second electron level there are an equal number of electrons from carbon as there are from the other atoms. This factor creates a very stable electron field in the outermost electron layers of any carbon compound, where most of the fluctuations and recombining take place.

Carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen. It is a vital component of the carbon-nitrogen cycle, which is the means stars use to convert hydrogen into helium. This cycle is the most basic and largest source of energy in the universe. So we can see that carbon and energy production are involved together at the most basic level. Carbon has perhaps the widest diversity of physical properties of any element. In its pure state, it exists both as graphite, one of the softest and most opaque substances and diamond, one of the hardest and most transparent of substances.

Carbon is one of the most essential elements required for life as we know it. All entities we know of as living contain carbon. It is the second most abundant element in the human body next to oxygen. It has the highest melting point of any element and its compounds are so stable that it requires very high temperatures for them to react with oxygen.

Carbon does a dance with hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen in a cycle of life on earth. All life forms on earth are made up of these same elements that dominate the earth and its atmosphere. Both plant and animal life are involved in complex chemical cycles that are essential to life on earth, but the most telling part of these cycles is that organic life on earth, in both life and death, contains tremendous amounts of carbon. 

I have mentioned these properties of carbon, and it’s vital intertwining with life on earth, to reveal the reasons why carbon compounds are perfectly suited to be used as fuels. They point to why the use of carbon fuels is so prevalent on our planet. All chemical reactions involve the application of energy, which is often manifest in the form of heat. Most chemical reactions are exothermic, which means they give off more energy, in the form of heat, than they use up. We have seen, through thermonuclear reactions, which, breaking up the word, is thermo, or heat, and nuclear, concerning the nucleus, that there is a tremendous amount of energy involved in the combining relationships between atoms, elements, molecules, and compounds. This huge amount of energy liberates equally huge amounts of heat.

Because carbon is tetravalent its compounds tend to be very stable. This means that the bonds created by the chemical reactions that create these compounds are held together by tremendous energy. Although it takes great energy to get carbon compounds to burn or react with oxygen, the act of burning breaks down those powerful bonds, releasing the incredible amount of energy that holds them together, in exothermic reactions. Exothermic reactions are accompanied by the release of heat. These properties reveal carbon compounds to be ideally suited to use as fuels.

Hydrocarbons, as the name suggests, are compounds containing hydrogen and carbon. The simplest hydrocarbon is methane, consisting of four hydrogen atoms to one carbon. In this compound the four hydrogen electrons bond with the four available electrons on the carbon atom. The chemical symbol for methane is therefore CH4. 

Oxidation is the combining of any element, molecule or compound, with oxygen. There is slow oxidation, such as the formation of rust on iron, and rapid oxidation, which we call burning. Oxidation is slow when a substance is exposed to oxygen over time. It does not require the application of external energy and the resulting oxidation is slow. Rapid oxidation requires the application of external energy. We know that carbon requires a large amount of energy to rapidly oxidize, i.e. burn. We also know that the burning of carbon releases large amounts of heat. As long as there is oxygen present the heat generated by the burning will burn more of the carbon until there is no longer any carbon or oxygen present. This cycle of burning not only consumes the available carbon but it liberates great amounts of heat.

We can more simply understand this process by thinking of a campfire. We gather an amount of wood, which is made of carbon, and we apply fire to it until it also begins to burn. Once it is burning it keeps burning until we stop putting wood on the fire and all the carbon in the remaining wood is oxidized. The heat liberated by burning the wood warms our nose and toes and will even cook the marshmallows we hold over it.

But back to methane. Because methane is the simplest hydrocarbon, burning methane is the simplest and cleanest method of obtaining energy from carbon. The burning of one methane molecule results in one molecule of carbon dioxide, two water molecules, and released energy. In this rapid oxidation process, under the application of heat,  the two oxygen molecules, consisting of four oxygen atoms, pull the hydrogen atoms away from the carbon atom, combining to form two water molecules, released as steam, one carbon dioxide molecule, and additional heat.

The equation for this reaction is CH4 + 2 O2 = CO2 + 2 H2O + 802 megajoules of energy per mole of methane. A mole is a compound’s atomic weight expressed in grams. A mole of methane is 16 grams, 12 for the carbon and one for each of the four hydrogens. From this equation, we can determine the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2), water (H2O) and energy released by burning any amount of methane. 

Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of the burning of all hydrocarbons, even methane, the simplest of hydrocarbon molecules. The burning of methane, which makes up well over 90% of what we call natural gas, creates the highest percentage of heat energy in relation to carbon dioxide formation of any hydrocarbon. More CO2 is created when larger hydrocarbon molecules are burned, in relation to the amount of heat energy liberated. This is why natural gas, which easily transported and burns purely, is the most used heat source in the average home environment. Unfortunately, there is not enough methane available for all our energy needs.

We have been aware that burning carbon-based sources liberated heat for a very long time. Thousands of years ago, primitive man used dry wood and coal stone to make fires that warmed them on cold nights and cooked their food. This energy helped them survive and hydrocarbon energy sources were widely sought out for use as fuels by the most primitive of humans. We continue to depend on carbon-based substances for fuel to this day almost exclusively, even with the development of modern, noncarbon-based energy sources.

Because there is so much carbon in the bodies of living creatures, much of it in the form of proteins, sugars and fats, many of the worlds available hydrocarbons come from organic sources. These organic compounds are made up primarily of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. As the bodies of living organisms break down and decompose after death the resulting compounds contain many hydrocarbons. After many years plant decomposition generally leads to the formation of coal deposits,  and animal decomposition can lead to the creation of oil.   

Methane comes from any number of carbon sources, both organic and inorganic, and is found in numerous places on earth, from our oceans and lakes to the permafrost of the Arctic and most places in between. Methane, in its form of natural gas, plus the coal and oil created from thousands of years of the decomposition of living organisms, are the 3 hydrocarbons most used as fuels in modern society. 

All of these hydrocarbons, when burned, release large amounts of energy, plus CO2 and water vapor into the ecosystem. It is this release of carbon dioxide which accompanies the release of energy that concerns those who care about the overall ecological health of the planet and it’s future survival.

Why are we concerned about the chemical properties of burning hydrocarbons and why did we spend all of this chapter so far on a high school chemistry lesson? It is because the burning of hydrocarbons was largely responsible for the creation of the machines that ushered in the Industrial Age in the mid to late 18th Century CE.

The use of hydrocarbon burning machines and machines that depend on them has grown exponentially since that time until the burning of hydrocarbons has become the basis for the entire industrial output of the world. This has come about largely because the alternatives to the use of carbon fuels to create energy have either been shown to be as or more dangerous to the environment as carbon or have proven to be more costly at their current level of development. The unique combination of the large amount of power produced per volume of fuel and the cost-effectiveness of their use has made the burning of hydrocarbons the primary method of obtaining energy on the planet.

It has only been recently that alternatives such as wind and solar energy to drive turbines, tapping geothermal energy to heat and cool buildings and the use of other chemical reactions to generate power have become viable as alternatives to the use of hydrocarbons as fuel. However, as the level of investment of energy producers in methods and machines using hydrocarbons is so great, they are very reluctant to take the necessary steps to convert their facilities to technologies that have yet to be proven to deliver the same amount of energy for the same or less cost. New and emerging alternative energy businesses have difficulty finding the resources to build production plants, either from political obfuscation “fueled” by corporate lobbying or the lack of venture capital for “unproven” profit sources.

So the use of carbon-based fuels continues, even in the face of science that tells us that the carbon dioxide byproduct of the combustion of these fuels is definitively damaging the Earth and its atmosphere, possibly irreversibly. Most of the so-called science that refutes this position has been directly commissioned by the very energy producers that have such a vested interest in the continued use of hydrocarbons as fuel. They spend a great deal of money trying to convince us that we are causing no serious damage to our world by our continued use of carbon fuels. They even try to tell us there are miracle carbon fuels out there, such as clean coal, when in fact there are none.

When the industrial revolution began, steam was the motive force used to drive the engines, dynamos, and turbines that created the energy necessary to power the large metal objects that did industrial work, and to move them from place to place. The energy needed to create steam through the boiling of water was supplied by carbon-based fuels, first wood then later the more efficient coal. Later, as the internal combustion engine was developed and perfected, smaller machines that burned liquid hydrocarbons such as kerosene and the gasoline that was refined from the newly significant fuel of oil made many tasks much easier. These small machines liberated both industry and the public from work that previously took large numbers of men and animals to accomplish. They were seen as great technological advancements that would relieve mankind from the type of laborious, backbreaking work that had been the norm. They were miracles that changed life as we know it forever.

These small machines liberated both industry and the public from work that previously took large numbers of men and animals to accomplish. They were seen as great technological advancements that would relieve mankind from the type of laborious, backbreaking work that had been the norm. They were miracles that changed life as we know it forever.

Concurrently, as electrical devices grew in number and sophistication, overall electrical needs skyrocketed. Turning dynamos was how electricity was generated and the energy needed to turn those dynamos was required in greater and greater quantities. Dynamos require some type of kinetic energy to work. The rushing currents of our nation’s rivers seemed a likely source of this kinetic energy. Large dams were built to harness the power of the rushing waters, turning dynamos to generate electricity. Electricity became more plentiful causing an even greater demand for power as rural electrification became a reality and even more electrical devices were made and put into use. Hydroelectric power seemed to be the answer to America’s ever-expanding energy needs. However, it soon became apparent that the damage done to the ecosystems of our rivers by the construction of so many dams was counterproductive. It wasn’t long before it was widely accepted that further development of hydroelectric power was not possible without extensive damage to large areas of arable and otherwise useful land.

The splitting of the atom was the next source of power thought to be the answer to our energy needs. The otherworldly power of the atom could, if the reactions were controlled, provide all the power we would ever need. As scientists harnessed the means to create atomic power scores of atomic reactor power stations were built. Once again the flush of excitement over this new energy source turned to doubt and fear as our understanding of the deleterious effects of radiation on human health matured. Atomic energy had a radioactive byproduct and this waste had to be kept somewhere. Originally it was thought that these wastes could be safely sequestered away from populated areas, but research began to show that these wastes, with their extremely long life of radioactivity, posed a great threat to life wherever they were hidden. America stopped building nuclear reactors for power.

In the face of the potential damage caused by further development of hydroelectric and atomic power and in answer to ever-increasing demand America turned to coal, a fuel that was both plentiful and seemingly much more innocuous than those other energy sources. Over the last 50 years, coal has increased as a source of energy around the world. Approximately 70% of China’s energy comes from the burning of coal. Even as the world supply of easily accessible oil is diminishing there remain vast supplies of coal and natural gas. 

This coal and gas was previously to costly to obtain. But new, if more damaging, methods of extraction have made them profitable for the energy companies to invest in. America, especially, has great amounts of these newly available energy sources. They have made the USA a total energy exporter rather than importer, changing our energy policy and solidifying the continued use of carbon-based energy sources.  

As we have moved into the 21st century, coal and other hydrocarbons account for a predominance of the world’s energy consumption. Many still see hydrocarbons as the most cost-efficient source of energy production moving well into the future.

We have accepted the burning of newly abundant hydrocarbons as the primary means of providing power to the entire planet, both on a macro scale in our power plants and on a micro scale in our cars, trains, planes, boats, lawnmowers, snowmobiles and other small engine products. As we increase our use of hydrocarbons we increase the emissions the burning of these fuels release into the atmosphere.

Our atmosphere is largely responsible for the ability of our earth to sustain life as we know it. The delicate balance of all the factors that go into this sustenance is difficult for us mere mortals to understand. The earth is so big and the atmosphere so vast that it is hard to get our heads around just how delicately the juxtaposition of forces that can dramatically affect life are aligned. The atmosphere supports life in many ways. 

First, it contains almost exactly the right proportion of gases to keep us alive. Our atmosphere contains approximately 21% oxygen. Humans require an atmosphere of at least 18% oxygen to survive. Complex interactions between plants and animals, plus atmospheric interactions of gases maintain this level of oxygen. As more oxygen is bound up in carbon dioxide from the burning of hydrocarbons and the destruction of massive areas of plant life in the Amazon jungle, our greatest source of oxygen, increases, the percentage of available oxygen in our air could decrease enough to make life uncomfortable, if not untenable, in a relatively short time.

Second, the layering of various levels of our atmosphere and their composition keep toxic atmospheric gases away from the surface. More importantly, they filter out and shield us from the more damaging frequencies of the sun’s energy emissions and guards us against the life-threatening effects of “cosmic rays”, emissions from deep space. Both of these forms of energy can radically alter human DNA, cause many cancers, and could burn us alive were we to be subjected to them over long periods of time.

Third and perhaps most important, the atmosphere keeps the surface temperature on the earth at a level that can support human life. Humans have a relatively small window of temperature in which they can thrive. Our atmosphere accomplishes maintaining this slim margin of acceptable surface heat through a complex and extremely delicate process whereby certain gases at certain levels in the atmosphere hold a certain amount of heat on the surface and allow a certain amount to escape. Through this process, the earth does not get too hot during warm periods nor too cold during cool periods. As the earth is tilted on an axis it moves closer and farther away from the sun as it revolves around it, causing the change in seasons. Without the atmosphere to temper the effects of heat and cold, life on earth would not exist. Dramatic changes to the composition of our atmosphere can affect the balance required to maintain the temperature within acceptable limits. The process is so delicate that though we see the atmosphere as vast, even small changes can have large effects.

As the earth is tilted on an axis it moves closer and farther away from the sun as it revolves around it, causing the change in seasons. Without the atmosphere to temper the effects of heat and cold, life on earth would not exist. Dramatic changes to the composition of our atmosphere can affect the balance required to maintain the temperature within acceptable limits. The process is so delicate that though we see the atmosphere as vast, even small changes can have large effects.

Even the most basic burning of hydrocarbons releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We have been burning hydrocarbons for fuel ever since the first wood fires. All living things contain carbon. Plant life has formed coal and animal life has formed oil. These are the two main forms of hydrocarbons used in energy creation today. In essence, man has been cannibalizing the lives of plants and animals, over millions of years, in just the last hundred years or so of the industrial age. Anyone with a soul can see we can’t go on like this. We must seek out other natural sources of energy such as the activity of the sun and the motion of the energy it creates, such as wind, ocean waves and biological processes, to further fuel our great need for energy. If not we will go the way of those who came before us to provide the coal and fuel we now use and life as we know it will cease to exist.

Anyone with a soul can see we can’t go on like this. We must seek out other natural sources of energy such as the activity of the sun and the motion of the energy it creates, such as wind, ocean waves and biological processes, to further fuel our great need for energy. If not we will go the way of those who came before us to provide the coal and fuel we now use and life as we know it will cease to exist.

The Bernie and Donald Hypotheses

A continuum is a line. A line extends infinitely through space, through the universe. The universe is curved. Therefore a line will eventually meet itself in space as in as circle. A circle with one point missing is considered a line. There can be an infinite number of points between any two points. Thus, speaking from the standpoint of nuclear physics we have established a paradox whereby a line can also be considered a circle based on the observers point of view.

Why am I starting off with all of this gobbledygook? Because it provides a mathematical basis for my hypothesis based in science. Using this information, continuums, which are nearly always portrayed as lines, are actually circles. Therefore the far ends of continuums, rather than being opposites, as is commonly perceived, are very nearly the same thing. Some examples include the fact that both extreme heat and extreme cold will burn the flesh. And obviously the continuum of the changing of the seasons does not have polar opposite ends but ends that run smooth;y into each other.

So to get to the point, (Thank God) it has always been my contention that radical right wingers and radical left wingers have more in common than they have in contention. It is our tendency as humans, these days strongly influenced by the media, to want to see dualities, black and white, in order to simplify life. This causes us to see the ends of a continuum as opposites and encourages us to see extreme liberals and extreme conservatives as complete opposites. This is just not true. This year’s presidential campaigns provide us with good evidence of that fact.

Conventional wisdom would consider Bernie Sanders and his followers to be polar opposites of Donald Trump and his followers. However while they disagree on a number of policies they share many of the more visceral and esoteric ideas about the issues and politics in general. I have experienced a large number of people who say they have been Democrats all their lives who will be voting for Trump as well as life long Republicans that will be voting for Sec. Clinton. Many of these folks go so far as to say they are changing parties permanently. Why is this?

Most of these switchers are Sanders supporters angry at the nomination process and appalled that the Democrats would nominate such a dangerous person who is not a real progressive. There are also traditional Republicans angry at the nomination process and appalled the the GOP would nominate such a dangerous person who is not a real conservative. What do these people have in common? A general mistrust of government and how it operates. Their main goal is to throw out all the mainstream politicians, who they feel are all corrupt sell outs, and replace them with outsiders who are not politicians but are ideologically pure. Most of them have never been involved in politics before, normally because of their strong mistrust of the process, and a belief there is no difference between the traditional parties. They want to throw away government as we know it and start over, based on their interpretation of the constitution and the idea of personal liberty.

But these two factions, as they are considered to be, are generally looked upon as opposites, especially by the press. Now this is true of of much of their overall reasoning, specific complaints, interpretations of the constitution,understanding of the intentions of the founding fathers, and most importantly who they blame for all of it. But the bottom line is they both believe America is going to hell in a hand basket and the only way to save it is to return to government of, by and for the people. And I believe that in essence they are right about a lot of this.

However, this is where I think things go off the rails. People want all of this change, right away,  but for a number of reasons they aren’t ready to do the work necessary to make it happen, especially in the way they imagine it will happen. There are a large number of folks, lovingly referred to as low information voters, who have little to no knowledge of how America works, what our major issues are, and what impact proposed policy will have on them,  the nation, and the world. These people are easily manipulated by appeals to strong emotions and will believe lies if they are told loudly and often enough.

Then there are voters who know a little civics and have opinions on things but who are just too busy to participate in the process. Some are simply disinterested in participating, for various reasons ranging from laziness to feeling that government never changes anything for anyone, ever. These citizens only care about elections the last two weeks before election day. Which is why most campaigns bombard the broadcast media with commercial after unfair commercial in those two weeks, virtually all of them about how awful the other candidate is. So right when they are finally looking for facts, after months of ignoring the campaigns, all they get is innuendo, half truths, and actual bald faced lies.

These two groupings are a very large segment of voters, likely  comprising a majority. And what they have in common is a need to hand over responsibility to those they elect and then forget about politics until the next election. The economy has forced them to be busier than ever before, in order to support their families. They might want to be aware but they can’t afford to be. So, many of us want and expect the president to solve every problem, and right away. They want a savior, a messiah to lead them figuratively out of Egypt, up to and including parting the Red Sea. This phenomenon is one factor that has made President of the United States the hardest job in the world.

The final demographic that needs a savior, and to me the most dangerous, is the radical activists. They are very aware of what is happening in politics and society, both domestic and international. They have a clear idea of what they think will save us and they know that to make it happen they need one strong leader who can get the job done in the face of adversity. It must be somebody who displays supreme confidence and the charisma to sell themself, even to the most opinionated of the activists, who will then follow them fervently and bring along their own followers.

There are many societies who have such a strongman at the top of their government, controlling virtually every aspect of society. Some of these leaders are benevolent but most are authoritarian and dictatorial. I believe the US has avoided such a regime primarily because it’s two party system keeps both parties from straying too far into uncharted authoritarian waters. They have never felt confident that taking such a dramatic stance could be successful, not with a majority of Americans having basically center left or center right views. But things have changed. I’m willing to guess that the change is, in large part, the responsibility of the rise of the political purist, brought on by frightened parties that felt they needed to pander to extremists to gain power. The extremists eventually gained enough power (This happened primarily in the GOP) to require an ideologic purity test for candidates. Which led to a bloc of legislators who refused to make compromises and thus ground the business of the legislative branch to a halt.

This paralysis has been the last straw for those of us who have been progressively more and more disillusioned with government and it’s failed ability to serve the people. They have come out of the woodwork to strongly influence the current presidential race. They were able to get Donald Trump nominated as a Republican, much to the chagrin of many prominent Republicans who know he is far from being one. And they nearly succeeded in nominating a Social Democrat, Bernie Sanders, as the Democratic nominee. What has transpired then is victory for the establishment in the Democratic Party, after a more heavily contested primary than they ever imagined. And their candidate, justifiably or not, has an extremely low likability rating. Lucky for them the GOP nominee, a loose cannon strongman, has an even lower rating.

This brings us to a place where we now have the most disconcerting race is recent US history. The hold your nose, lesser of two evils factor is off the charts. People are tired of having to elect this kind of President. They want someone they can admire. They want big change and they want it now. This frenetic anger has left us vulnerable to an authoritarian strongman being elected President. He will most likely break his promise to make the country a better place for the people, and will institute policies that oppress us even more than we already are. But in the event we can stop this very real danger, the alternative does not inspire much hope that she will ever institute many of the progressive policies this country needs.

This brings us round robin to the longtime democrats and republicans, plus the disillusioned radicals or traditionalists,who are abandoning their ostensible party’s nominee.Some of them are now voting for the other guy by write in , the other teams guy by write in. or a fringe party’s candidate. What affect will this have on the dynamic of the outcome of the election? I doubt any of the mainstream pundits know. This is out of their comfort zone.

We are entering a new era of American politics, one which may result in a system with multiple viable parties, and a more parliamentary method of creating government. The progressive revolutionary laundry list of changes is long. Right now the re-evolution is in it’s infancy and as in any revolution heads will fall. But should we call the executioner just yet? Who’s to say? I’m disqualifying myself.

It is a critical, crucial time to be an American, even more so an educated and aware American. This is the most important election in American history. I’ve said this every four years since Reagan’s second term. Perhaps prophetically that election was in 1984. At its core it was true every time. This time its true on steroids. It has existential implications for the planet. The arc of plant earth’s future will be forged this November, historic like never before.

Our Millennial generation are the only ones who can save us, in my estimation. But they are being systematically destroyed by overwhelming student debt. This is intentional. They are being squeezed by a shrinking job market and reduced public services across the board. They are being distracted by any number of petty playthings designed to numb them from their pain. We boomers, as our last redeeming gift, must protect them, we must run interference for them, we must exert ourselves to keep them from getting picked off one by one by despair. We must keep the light shining so they have something in the distance to aspire to.

A dictatorship will make that nearly impossible.

But we have defeated dictators before.

There is a reason both love and courage come from the heart.

Who Has the Power? ( And How Did They Get It?)

Please be advised that this post presupposes that science has value and can legitimately shed light on at least several things in this universe. This is no longer a given.

Lately there seems to be something of a rush to discover and reveal the real differences between Conservatives and Liberals. It’s a mean and meme world out there and there are plenty of pundits with a need to chime in on every tweety youtube trender that comes along, regardless of whether they know anything about it or not. Thus the recent spate of “Here’s the secret handshake of science” journalism that probably comes from certain so-called experts’ need to separate themselves from the glutted pack of a thousand points of sites. And there are plenty of new studies out there for these limelight addicts to reference.

We have the brain activity explanation, complete with those graphs and GIFs of brainwaves that folks are fond of displaying in their articles and on their blogs. Oft times well meaning but inadequately informed journalists will look to graphs to help flesh out their stories, especially if they are pretty. (The graphs that is). The brain wave explanations are so au courant and impressive but as with most speculative science those brain waves are subject to the classic query, “Nature or Nurture”. And, also as usual, I believe it’s some of both.

There is then the genetic proclivity explanation, with a different, more structural look at the brain. They often talk in science-ese, a bizarre language they use to keep us confused enough that they can keep their jobs. They talk about how this or that lobe or area of the brain is larger or smaller, or more or less developed. It gives them reason to declare that there are genetic proclivities towards certain influences and behaviors that predict our political tendencies. I think there is some merit to this point of view, but it is not a complete explanation. The fact that tradition shows us that most national elections, when push comes to shove, are decided by a relatively small margin. This balance references the fact that many brain functions have a binary, on or off, function. More on this later.

My particular preferred explanation for all this terminally intellectual stuff comes through the branch of Cognitive Science that is Cognitive Linguistics. It is on this subject that I will wax poetic, seemingly for the next several days.

Because our brain does not primarily use words to communicate with itself, but only to communicate with others, the development of language says everything about how humans communicate thoughts, ideas and concepts. The study of the brain and how it works speaks to us about the relationship between brain function and the way we use words. The science shows us that words can actually, physically change the brain. For me this reconciles other research being done by cognitive linguists about the influence of our brains on our politics, with the aforementioned purely physical reasons.

Cognitive science is a big deal these days. My opinion is that it grew simultaneously with and parallel to the quest to unlock the human genome. Curiosity is the engine behind scientific discovery, and as the technology to study and research both the physical functions of the brain and the body’s cellular level programming became more and more advanced, so did the drive to uncover the secrets of these heretofore mysterious and vitally important body parts.

What science is discovering is that the existence, outside of us, of a transcendent mind, which houses truth and reason, that we tap into to various degrees, to access universal meaning and conceptual reality, is a falsehood. Rationalists be damned, we are discovering that all human function is embodied in the brain. Not only does the brain control our typing and eyesight but our thinking and feeling.

One may ask, if all human thought is controlled by the individual brain and not an external static source, how is it that we have nearly universal acceptance of certain concepts. In essence that acceptance comes through experience and communication. Our thoughts are more pictorial than verbal. In fact, verbal communication is a limited, imperfect brain function, informed by the differences in individual human thought more so than any concrete construct. Agreement on the collective nature of things and ideas begged the question of what symbols to use to adequately and consistently communicate about things and ideas, between the ever larger sociopolitical and socioeconomic groups that evolved over time. Language became more and more important the larger the number of people we needed to talk to.

Words connect us with the pictures our brains use to simplify complex situations, concepts and functioning physical systems. Words are the triggers that bring entire groups of things and ideas into consciousness, from the unconscious, in one instantaneous moment. These verbally supported thought pictures define both what is and isn’t part of the communication at hand. For example, when one says the word “hospital” we immediately call up the words that trigger pictures of doctors and nurses and gurneys and IVs. Just that one word calls into our conscious minds an entire complex idea. The word also immediately references what is not in a hospital, i.e. a motorcycle or football. It cements a clear definition of the concept in our brain. Our brains do this as a shortcut. The brain processes millions of bits of information a second, and has an incredible amount of information in storage. In order to function quickly and efficiently it has to compress information dramatically in order to do this.

You may have heard the phrase ‘words have power’. This is more true than any of us ever imagined. Cognitive linguists are finding that words and the collective acceptance of their meaning cannot only influence people’s conceptualizations, but can actually change the brain. The brain learns and constantly changes to reflect that learning. Wanna learn how to hit a curveball? The more curveballs you try to hit the brain better remembers the group of complex physical responses that bring to the task both success and failure. Eventually it builds an express lane that more efficiently sets that entire process in motion the instant the eye sees what it recognizes as a curveball. We get better at hitting the curveball. The brain, over time, has learned how to make that entire quantum of processes respond more quickly and accurately, by physically changing its structure. The repetition has worn a “deeper’ neural pathway in the brain, from the seeing of the ball to the hitting of it. This better worn groove speeds up the process and enhances its effectiveness.

The desire for accomplishment and knowledge which leads to changing the brain does not only apply to physical performance but to conceptualization as well. If we are constantly exposed to a pervasive mental or emotional stimulus the brain learns which picture to call up, into the conscious mind, that the word, or grouped word metaphor, triggers. When dealing with a word that can have several meanings, repetition of the word trigger that points to the preferred definition determines which neural pathway becomes dominant. This now dominant pathway points us to that desired definition to the exclusion of others.

The brain can only assign one picture at a time to any given word. This is where the battle originates. Two opposing forces that support different meanings associated with a word, meanings called contested concepts, will fight over which meaning takes hold in the unconscious minds of the masses. The unconscious mind is where the meanings of words live. We could never hold the meanings of the several thousands words we know and use in our conscious minds minds all at the same time. The fight is over which picture comes into consciousness when the word is used and sets off the trigger. Establishing which meaning of the word is dominant is important because, as one address can’t be used for two homes at the same time, one word can’t point to two pictures at the same time. Their is a reason different definitions for a word in the dictionary are numbered. Pickle can’t mean a tasty, if salty, treat and a predicament concurrently.

Conservatives learned and accepted these ideas, putting their own frames around the pictures much earlier than liberals. They have gotten the jump on them in many areas of defining political ideas. In fact, to this day, many liberals consider as cheating the selling of the meanings of words to the public through repetition, by claiming opinion is truth, and by asserting their victimhood, etc.. They say manipulating the meanings of words is propaganda and against their principles. It is, of course, a type of propaganda, and as such is underhanded and vile, but we are in the middle of a war of words, a battle for the political hearts and minds of America. In war if you use inferior weapons, no matter how much you are loathe to use the better ones, you will almost always lose. And liberals are losing. Frankly, contests for the meanings of words take place every day in all disciplines. The irony here is that liberals often accuse conservatives of being more concerned with ideological purity than serving the people when, in this case, it is they who are being ideologically pure to their own detriment.

As usual I have gone way off the reservation here, but there is a method to my madness. People often read the end of articles first, to see what passes for a summary. So I often put the salient points toward the end. Maybe not the wisest thing to do, but I have never been accused of being particularly wise.

I have to put the difference between liberals and conservatives in here somewhere. So here are my salient points. All the folks who love to blame brain structure or brain wave activity or genetics for people’s political philosophies seem to forget that willful manipulation can actually change the brain. In some cases, to varying degrees, they are mistaking the effects for the causes. This often happens when one is looking to support a particular position and only delves as deep as the level where their evidence lives. It doesn’t mean their science is bad, it just means it’s incomplete and, thus, often inaccurate.

Earlier I mentioned that I feel genetics does play a role in a person’s values, fears, and perceptions, things that help forge our politics. I used the example of how close virtually all national level general elections are. But I’m not convinced that the ideological split is right down the middle. Few genetic proclivities, although based in binary sources, are exclusively black or white, on or off. On a dualist continuum there is not one exact place where X suddenly turns into Y but a gradual change from one value to its opposite. If you over-generalize, which for our purposes isn’t all that bad, one can claim that the division of dominance can be divided into thirds. X is dominant over 1/3 of the graph, Y dominates another third, and the hybrid Z, the gray, is prevalent in the middle third. One can see this is fairly true in political choice, as polls show, most often, on nearly any issue, that one third are conservative, one third are liberal and one third will not admit to being either.

This is where the framing of the pictures comes in. Electoral politics is the battle for that middle third. It is inaccurate to call these people moderates. They cannot honestly claim to be truly conservative or liberal because they find truth in elements of both philosophies. But when they are asked to choose, as in an election which only has two choices, they have been shown to choose by turning inward to their feelings about a candidate rather than his/her stance on the issues. So the definitions of the words used to describe candidates and their issues becomes vitally important. This is because the picture a candidate’s or party’s words elicit can influence a person’s feelings in a much different way than the speaker intends, based on the dominant definitions of the words that are triggered in that listener’s brain.

So, convincing that middle third to accept your definitions becomes the goal behind the goal. There are plenty of ways to accomplish this. Public opinion normally moves up and down in somewhat of a sine wave over time, but that doesn’t mean a skilled politician can’t manipulate the public’s feelings, to sell approval of their politics and not their opponent’s, regardless of prevailing trends. They can. in essence, be all things to all people. This duplicitous nature, normally attributed to all politicians often comes from their forked tongued efforts to appeal to all of the Z side of the triangle, and win the votes of everybody except that hard core one third of the other team.

In many ways elections are about using power to keep power. One particular application of political power is, to my mind, the reason why so many incumbents get reelected over and over again, even in the face of a predominantly negative feeling among voters that “we need to throw all the bums out”. This is the power of the incumbency. It is is reflected in the voting booth, where, faced with a choice between the lesser of two evils, a choice we are faced with much too often, we will vote for the incompetent idiot we know over the incompetent idiot we don’t know. That power can come from just a word, a familiar name. The familiarity doesn’t even need to be with an known individual. Here in Scandahoovian country, just having your name end in “son” can get you elected. This phenomenon is a type of scientifically explainable preference as well, just of a different kind.

Yes, there is a great deal of science in how a person behaves politically. But as long as humans use the imperfection of language to communicate the feelings of meanings, there will be a direct and imperfect relationship between the two. We can agree that red is red much easier than freedom is freedom, because the physical evidence of color that we all share allows for little contest in the meaning of red. Imperfection opens the door for falsehood. If the truth is not completely true then lies can appear to have an element of truth. And the political philosophy salesman only needs to get his foot in the door. He only has to establish plausibility to persuade. The meanings of words are one of the best tools he has in his tool belt.

It’s a shame our brains have to use our consciousness as a communications go between. Things could be so much clearer if we could just plug it to each other directly.

Maybe that’s why there is such a deep, ingrained fear in the human psyche that robots will eventually supplant us on top of the food chain. In fact, they don’t even need food.