Jeff Danner

Common Science Fifth Anniversary Column

This week marks the fifth anniversary of Common Science® and this is my 239th column! It’s been my great pleasure to write them and I have enjoyed your comments and emails over the years. Nevertheless, I’ve decided that I need to take a little hiatus from writing.   In the mean time, I will still be on the air with Aaron Keck on 97.9 FM/1360 AM WCHL and streaming live on www.chapelboro.com Monday afternoons at 4:32 pm for our usual geektastic science discussions.    For this fifth anniversary column, I have decided to review some of the key themes and points I have tried to share with you over the past 5 years. Almost all of our energy comes from the sun. The energy contained in coal, petroleum, and natural gas and biofuels is all derived from photosynthetic plants capturing solar energy. Solar electricity comes directly from the sun and wind energy is the indirect result of uneven heating of the atmosphere by the sun. Even hydroelectric power is dependent on the evaporation of water by the sun as part of the water cycle. The most important part of the energy-from-the-sun story to keep in mind is that fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – represent solar energy captured by plants hundreds of millions of years ago. Exploiting these fossil fuels allows us to use many, many years of...

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A Simple Way to Help the Birds and the Bees

Sometimes the rest of my life imposes on my writing schedule.   I skipped last Sunday, a rarity, and this week I am writing from the road. While I was in the car yesterday, I heard an appeal from the National Audubon Society for everyone to grow some native plants in order to feed migratory birds. As I listened to the story, I was struck by how this simple appeal pulled together threads from a wide variety of my columns.  Let me see if I can walk you through all of the connections that struck me.   My apologies in advance if it is a bit rambling. If you have been reading Common Science® for any length of time, it’s likely that you have encountered one of my anti-lawn rants. Let me recap. Lawns, at least as currently utilized in the Unites States, are absurd and wasteful. Only a very small portion of mown grass ever gets walked or played upon. Despite that fact, we dutifully buy grass seed, spread fertilizer, apply herbicides to kill “weeds”, irrigate with water that we have treated sufficiently to allow for human consumption, and fritter away our precious time cutting it back every week while burning 300 million year old sunshine in the form of the gasoline in our mowers. When we fertilize, we tend to use too much and it runs off into the...

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The Highest Volume Chemical Produced in the World is . . .

In the early 1990s when I was a graduate student in Chemical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, I taught a class called Introduction to Chemical Engineering to the freshmen. During my first lecture, I asked the students to guess the highest volume chemical produced in the United States. They made some worthy guesses, but none were correct. The correct answer back then as well as today, a quarter of a century later, was and is sulfuric acid by a landslide. Furthermore, sulfuric acid would have been the correct answer in 1900 or any other year between then and now. Currently, the United States churns out 36 million tons of it every year. Before I explain why we make so much sulfuric acid, I want to share an encounter I had with the history of the production of sulfuric acid. The first commercial-scale method for producing sulfuric acid, known as the lead chamber process, was invented by John Roebuck in 1746 in Birmingham, England. That method produces sulfuric acid by burning sulfur to make sulfur dioxide gas and then mixing it with steam in a lead-lined chamber. After several chemical reactions occur and the steam condenses, you are left with sulfuric acid in the liquid phase. The chambers had to be lined with lead; otherwise the sulfuric acid would eat right through them. After getting into the iron business...

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Cats, Man’s Second Best Friend

My inspirations for topics come from many sources: news articles, conversations, questions from readers, long-held passions, and occasionally random thoughts. This is a random thought week. For some reason, it occurred to me that I don’t know the history of the domestication of cats. I’m not sure why I thought about that. I don’t have a cat and I don’t especially like them. Nevertheless, I decided to follow the thought and it led me to some interesting places. The story behind the domestication of dogs is fairly well known. Sometime around 30,000-40,000 years ago, humans started to form alliances with wolves in the hunting portion of hunting and gathering. The relationship was mutually beneficial and our ancestors began a process, intentional or otherwise, of selective breeding that resulted in increasingly calm and domesticated offspring. Over the ensuing millennia, intentional selective breeding has given us the myriad of different breeds of dogs that exist today. So what about cats? The domestication of cats began in the Fertile Crescent – modern day Iraq – in approximately 8,000 B.C. when humans began to grow wheat and barley in amounts sufficient to provide a storable excess.  The stored grain attracted rodents and the rodents attracted cats, and thus a useful human-cat alliance began. Since writing had not been invented in the Fertile Crescent in 8,000 B.C., we don’t know exactly how this relationship...

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In Which My Chickens Save My Life

I raise chickens at my small farm west of Carrboro, NC. At the moment, there are six members of my all-female flock. In addition to their coop, they have 24/7 access to a 2,500 square foot chicken run. Because I allocate over 400 square feet per chicken, plants grow in the chicken run faster than my flock can kill them by scratching up the ground. I also supplement the volunteer plant life by growing flowers, lettuce, and pumpkins and the like. As a result of my efforts, my chicken run approaches what I perceive to be a sort of poultry paradise filled with worms, bugs, grasshoppers, beetles, and tasty plants. In return for my stewardship, my ladies provide me with the tastiest, most orange-yoked eggs I’ve ever seen. In addition, they might just save my life. Before I expound further on the lifesaving potential of my chickens, let’s discuss the science behind why humans might want to eat the meat and/or eggs of animals. The first reason that likely crossed your mind was as a protein source. Proteins consist of long-chains of amino acids and comprise some of the most important molecules in your body including DNA, muscle tissues, and enzymes. In order for your body to make all of the proteins it requires, it must have a consistent supply of 20 different types of amino acids. Your body...

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U.S. Birth Practices 1940 to 2040: Part II

Last week in Part I, I reviewed the history of birth practices in the United State from 1940 to 2016. This week, let’s project forward to 2040. Currently 99% of all births in the U.S. occur in hospitals, one third of them by Caesarian section. Utilization of the expensive space, equipment, supplies, and personnel from the hospital setting makes birth a very expensive event in the U.S. Despite the significant expenditures and the use of advanced medical technologies, the United States is one of only a handful of countries across the globe with an increasing rate of maternal mortality. Currently 17.8 of every 100,000 mothers die in childbirth or in its aftermath, putting the U.S. in 33rd place worldwide. Key factors driving this increase include poor pre-natal care, complications from C-sections, and an increasing number of hospital-acquired infections. Surely we can do better than this. My inspiration to investigate how we might improve these disappointing results came from reading an announcement from Britain late last year. After conducting a careful study, the British National Health Service published new guidelines that suggested that women with straightforward pregnancies consider giving birth at home. This suggestion might seem a bit outlandish at first, until you learn a bit more about how healthcare works in Britain. As soon as a woman becomes pregnant, she is matched up with a nurse midwife who will...

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U.S. Birth Practices 1940 to 2040: Part I

As I am approaching my fifth anniversary of publishing Common Science®, I hope that it is apparent how much I enjoy writing these columns, particularly when the topic brings in threads of history, politics, economics, and culture along with the science. This is one of those weeks. And as often is the case, I will use some of my own family history to help in the telling of the story. In 1940, the year my mother was born at home without the assistance of any trained medical professionals, the United States was still reeling from the Great Depression and home births were the norm. World War II brought economic prosperity, rapid industrialization, modernization of medical practices, and the commercial introduction of penicillin and other antibiotics. Further, the success of the U.S. armed forces during the war was at least partially attributed to advances in science and engineering, which helped to foster an attitude that most human problems could and should be addressed with technology. Post-war economic prosperity drove the construction of a tremendous number of hospitals staffed with doctors and nurses trained either during the war or afterwards through funding from the G.I Bill. Within these shiny, new facilities, the view that educated men – and I say men on purpose – wielding the latest scientific knowledge could improve over Mother Nature held sway. This perspective was bolstered by...

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Sun Glare Challenges for the Blue-eyed

For some reason that eludes me, I always live directly west of my office. As a result, for much of the year I drive directly into the rising sun in the mornings and into the setting sun in the evenings. Usually my commute provides me with a peaceful and welcome transition between my home and work environments. But on those mornings and afternoons when the sun dips low and traffic on Route 40 slows to a crawl, my frustration builds and I have been known bellow out “encouragements” such as, “Come on people, it’s just the sun!” and “Keep going!” as well as some other more colorful exhortations. It’s hard for me to understand why everyone can’t just keep moving along. But then again, I have brown eyes, so I wouldn’t understand the challenges of my blue-eyed fellow commuters. To understand why the sun doesn’t bother me but stymies them, we need to delve into some details about electromagnetic waves, evolution, physics, and the biology of the human eye. The energy that the earth receives from the sun comes in the form of electromagnetic (EM) waves. The radiation of EM waves through the universe can be hard to wrap your mind around, but as I will discuss below, we are all quite familiar with them nonetheless.   The full spectrum of EM wavelengths is shown in the graphic below. Low...

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An Engineer Looks at 50

Today is my 50th birthday. So rather than delving into a science or technology topic this week, I ask for you indulgence as I reflect on the first half century of my life. In a bit of a spoiler, let me tell you up front that it’s been a great ride thus far. As I have been approaching this milestone, in the words of David Bryn, I have been asking myself “How did I get here?” In looking back, I find that the answer to that question is inextricably interwoven with my being an engineer, both by profession and predilection. There are several important characteristics that both attract a person to engineering and also allow him/her to succeed in the field. These characteristics include: approaching complex problems by breaking them down into their component parts, having an introvert’s comfort with solitude and contemplation, possessing a knack for understanding how equipment and systems work and how to fix and improve them, seeking continuous improvement rather than the quick fix, and relying on data in decision making. I have tried to evaluate how having these characteristics has impacted my life and, like good engineer, I have organized my reflections into categories. Education: During my senior year of high school, I was conflicted about whether I wanted to major in chemical engineering or, my other main interest, history. Back in the 1980s,...

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Super Capacitors are the Future of Battery Technology

Batteries play a useful, yet underappreciated, role in our lives. They power our hand-held electronic devices, are the key element in hybrid automobiles, and allow the intermittent power available from the sun and the wind to be stored and supplied when needed. So I thought a column about how the science of batteries would be a good way to kick off Common Science® in 2016. In the most general sense, a battery is any device that has 0ne zone that can store and/or produce electrons, the anode or negative terminal, and another side that can accept electrons, the cathode or positive terminal. (This terminology can be a bit confusing. By definition, electrons have a negative charge. Therefore, the side of the battery that supplies the electrons is the negative side.) The voltage of a battery corresponds to the power with which it can deliver electrons out of the anode. That’s sort of a strange concept to ponder. Think of a battery as being like a pump with the electrons being water and the voltage being the pressure that the pump can create. A battery with higher voltage can “pump” electrons through a circuit with more electrical resistance than could a battery with lower voltage.  If you connect of a battery to a circuit, provided that it has sufficient voltage, electrons will flow out of the anode, through the circuit,...

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