Saturday, August 1, 2020

Water, Water Everywhere, and All of it is Holy

There is a fun college chemistry assignment that involves calculating (roughly) how many air molecules from Julius Caesar’s last dying gasp will be in the breath you are about to inhale. You make some reasonable assumptions about the height and density of the atmosphere, and use the gas laws to reach an estimate. It’s perfect for making college chemistry sophomores think, to use their new knowledge in non-technical but useful ways. The answer is that about one molecule in every breath you breathe was also in Caesar’s last dying breath. 


I wanted to do the same thing for water, because water is more intimate; it doesn’t just go in and out of our lungs, it lives in us as part of us before being excreted. I was astounded at the results. 


Since I’m in the U.S. and was raised in Christianity, I’m going to use Jesus for my calculations, but you could pick anyone who lived more than a century or two ago and get similar results. Let’s assume Jesus was an average Joe, drinking about 2 liters of water per day. Over 40 years, that’s 30,000 liters of water. Talk about holy relics! No water could possibly be more holy than water that actually passed through his body, so I’ll call these 30,000 liters “Holy Water,” and the molecules that made them up I’ll call “Holy Molecules.” Those Holy Molecules are now spread all over the planet thanks to the water cycle. There are 1.0x1030of them.*


The total volume of the oceans is 1.37x10cubic kilometers. All the fresh water in all the glaciers, lakes, rivers, and groundwater makes up only 2.5%, which is negligible for my purposes here. There are 1015 cubic centimeters in a cubic kilometer, so the volume of the oceans is 1.37x1024cm3.


Jesus’ 30,000 liters is thirty million cm3. Dividing it by the volume of the oceans gives us the fraction of HW among all Earth water: 2.2x10-17. That’s a very small fraction—a drop in the ocean really—but it contains one hell of a lot of molecules. If that fraction of each cubic centimeter of water is Holy Molecules, then each cubic centimeter of water on this planet contains 668,000 Holy Molecules!


So grab a cup of water. Drink it. You just drank over 150 million Holy Molecules.§  Now they’re inside you, living as you. All water is holy water.  


Yes, I see you there, waving your arms and puffing out your cheeks about how we can’t assume perfect mixing. “What about the deep oceans, where ocean currents don’t flow,” you ask, “where water molecules might sit for eons without mixing with surface ones? And what about all that water locked up in glaciers since before the Ice Age? What about…” 


I hear you. But think about it; if we took those non-mixing waters into account, it would decrease the volume we used for the oceans, which would only increase the portion of Holy Molecules in your glass. My calculation is a low-end estimate, a minimum. Being more precise about which waters mix would only increase the holiness of the water in your glass. 


For those who think I played a dirty trick by neglecting the planet’s reserves of fresh water, taking them into account would yield 651,000 Holy Molecules per cm3instead of 668,000. For a cup of water, the answer is the same after rounding. 


Every cup of water you drink contains over 150 million water molecules that passed through Jesus’ body during his lifetime. Some of those—some small number of them but still a few in every glass of wine, soda, milk, beer or spring-water—were in his body when he died.


All water is holy water. 


I’ll raise a glass to that.  Cheers. 



* Water is 1g/ml and has a molecular mass of 18.015g/mole. 

  30,000 liters = 30 million ml = 30 million grams. 

  Divide that by 18.015 g/mol = 1.67x106moles. 

  Multiply that by Avogadro’s number (6.01x1023) = 1.0x1030molecules. 


† Water is 1g/ml and has a molecular mass of 18.015g/mole. 

   1g divided by 18.015g/mol = .0555…moles. 

   That times Avogadro’s number = 3.34x1022molecules in each cm3.

   Multiplying by the HW fraction of that = 668,000 Holy Molecules in each cm3.


§ 1C = 236 cm3, so multiply 668,000 by 236 = 157.6 million per cup. 

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Grains of Sand and Stars in the Universe

In writing my book,[1] I tried to track down some well-known facts to their sources, only to find that some well-known facts aren’t facts at all. For example, there is a widely bandied-about figure on the number of grains of sand on the earth, credited to a “study” done by “researchers at the University of Hawaii.” 

I had to use the WayBack Machine to find the “study,” which turns out to be a rough estimate done by a mathematician named Howard C. McAllister. It was never published in any research journal. Beyond that, McAllister was only trying to estimate the beach sand on the earth; he did not include any deserts. 

His old figure for beach sand is 7.5 x 1018, and may be found here. Yeah, click there and check it out. It’s hardly a “study.” It’s an order-of-magnitude estimate. A nice one, but far from definitive, and nothing like a research paper. 

I’m going to complete McAllister’s estimate, in hopes that eventually people will find this post for a more comprehensive estimate. In the same spirit as his original, this will be an order-of-magnitude calculation; sticklers for specifics can write their own blogs. My work here is NOT definitive! 

The fourteen[2] largest deserts according to are:

Antactica                 (no sand)
The Arctic               (no sand)
Sahara                     3,500,000 square miles
Arabian                   1,000,000 mi2
Gobi                         500,000
Patagonian            (more rocky than sandy)
Great Victoria        250,000           (shallow sand, mostly)
Kalahari                  220,000
Great Basin            190,000            (shallow sand, mostly)
Syrian                     190,000
Chihauhuan          175,000              (shallow sand, mostly)
Great Sandy          150,000
Kara Kum              135,000
Colorado Plateau 130,000              (shallow sand)
Gibson Desert      120,000

All the other deserts further down the list add up (roughly) to another 700,000 square miles. 

That makes a total of 7,260,000 square miles. That’s a lot. Let’s assume (for no good reason and with no evidence whatsoever) that most of the deserts with dunes average ten meters for depth of sand, and that the shallow ones average one meter in depth. The former is probably low and the latter one high, but they are easy numbers, and probably within an order of magnitude. 

Converting square miles to square meters then multiplying and summing (see table below) that yields an overall volume of 1.71 x 1014 cubic meters of sand in deserts alone. 

Using the same grain volume (1 mm3) used by the UHI mathematicians, we multiply our deserts’ volumes by the number of cubic millimeters in a cubic meter (1,000,000,000) to get: 

1.71 x 1023 grains of sand in the world’s deserts.

Whoa. The beaches are totally eclipsed by this number. Adding them together changes nothing.[3]  Sand on beaches is comparatively insignificant. 

The number of galaxies in the visible universe is currently estimated at two trillion (2 x 1012)Each galaxy contains, on average, between 100 billion and 400 billion stars (solar systems), or 1 x 1011 to 4 x 1011.

That gives a range for stars of 2 x 1023 (close to sand!) to 8 x 1023

It is still true: There are more solar systems in the visible universe than grains of sand on the earth. Just barely. Same order of magnitude, for sure. The weakest part of my reasoning is the depth of sand in the world's deserts. It could easily be ten times what I assumed here, which could put sand in the lead over stars, depending on the average number of stars in each galaxy. 

I hope that's helpful. 

Great Victoria2.50E+056.48E+11shallow16.48E+11
Great Basin1.90E+054.92E+11shallow14.92E+11
Great Sandy1.50E+053.89E+11103.89E+12
Kara Kum1.35E+053.50E+11103.50E+12
Colorado Plateau1.30E+053.37E+11shallow13.37E+11
Gibson Desert1.20E+053.11E+11103.11E+12
If each grain of sand takes 1 cubic mm ---->>1.71E+23

[1] Working title: Implications; The Interfaith Promise of Science
[2] Just because. 
[3] 1.71 x 1023 + 7.5 x 1018 = 1.710075 x 1023 which rounds to 1.71 x 1023.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Eleven Senses

When I taught in a more traditional classroom setting, I had a mantra that I recited at the beginning of every class:  Be Your Own Expert.  I wanted students to question received wisdom, to consider the evidence for themselves whenever possible.  Every day I told a different story of an “expert” that was later shown to be laughably wrong.  It was fun. 

My favorite example of “conventional ignorance” masquerading as wisdom is the phrase “the five senses.”  People use this expression without ever thinking about it.  Once I found a picture book for toddlers called “Your Five Senses.”  Indoctrination starts early.  I didn’t question it myself until a friend and mentor said something to me about the “other senses.”  It got me thinking: “Are there other senses?  What might they be?” In very short order I came up with three or four obvious ones, counting ten or eleven within a few days.  You can, too.  

Go ahead. Bookmark this for a day or two and see how many senses you can come up with. But wait!  Read my definition of a sense first: A human sense is a means by which a human mind obtains a unique quality of information about the physical universe.  (Not the spiritual, social, or emotional universes, about which humans will reasonably disagree.) Just the physical universe.  

OK, here’s your chance to be your own expert. If you keep reading, you’ll kick yourself, because the first few are easy. You may disagree with me about some of them, but verified scientific evidence is on my side. We humans receive at least ten very specific and unique qualities of information about the physical universe.  

1 through 5: Hearing, Taste, Touch, Smell, Sight.  Some fascinating recent research is revealing amazing insights about these old familiars.  For example, there are sensors behind the retina that detect light, but instead of sending the signal to the visual cortex, they are linked to the part of the brain that determines the wake/sleep cycle. 

6 - Balance.  This sense tells us our orientation to gravity.  Balance involves a separate organ, located near each ear (but unrelated to hearing). The three semi-circular canals of the vestibular system run in each of the three dimensions, so we can know our gravitational orientation in three dimensions. Damage to either vestibule causes debilitating vertigo.  

7- Temperature. This is NOT the sense of touch, which tells us about pressure and texture. Temperature is a separate quality of information from pressure/texture, and there are separate receptors in the skin for temperature, called thermo-receptors.  Actually there are two, one for warmth and a different kind for cold, so arguably this is two separate senses. Heat radiation can be sensed by our skin in the absence of anything to “touch,” eg. in vacuum.   

8- Time.  While the accuracy of this sense varies greatly (as does smell), most of us will notice if our favorite song is played too fast. . . if I leave the room to use the restroom and come back 2 seconds later, no one would need to consult a clock to know I hadn't been gone long enough. There is clearly a human ability to sense the passage of various quantities of time. Neurologists have not yet described the structure for this function, and it looks as though the “sensor” may be a distributed network of neurons in the brain.  Rats can “tell time” even if their entire cortex is removed. Stay tuned. 

9- Proprioception, or the kinesthetic sense.  Close your eyes and ask yourself where is your left thumb, or your right elbow. No peeking! You'll know, to within an inch or two. You have a 3D map in your head showing the location of each part of your body, no peeking needed. The information comes from cells called proprioceptors (stretch receptors) in all the voluntary muscles of the body. They tell you how stretched or contracted each muscle is, which your brain uses to determine at what angle each joint is held.  

10- Interoception, or the body sense.  This one provides unique information concerning the geography of your body parts. When you have a headache, you know that the pain is in your head, not your abdomen. When someone touches your shoulder, you know it's your shoulder. This may be related to the geography of nerve endings in the brain, but that's true of every sense.  

11-Direction.  I accept that this sense is marginal, in that it may be only a combination of balance, time, and/or kinesthetic senses.  However, there is some evidence that certain aboriginal peoples have a highly developed sense of direction, that is not eliminated by restricting the other senses.  I'm not prepared to say that aboriginal people are other than human, so the sense remains on my list, though tentatively.   

For the past fourteen years I have been SO proud of myself for thinking of these on my own.  Then along comes Wikipedia (  Turns out they list even more senses than I do, except they count pain as a separate sense (nociception), along with some fascinating others.   

So how many senses do we have?  Somewhere between eleven and seventeen. Yet another* example of how we mistake conventional wisdom for actual wisdom. 

Be Your Own Expert!

Friday, June 7, 2019

Ending Abortion for Real

I have a simple 3-step proposal that would virtually end abortion in the U.S. Keep reading:

Step 1: Make all forms of contraception and related medical services free and easily available to everyone over the age of 12. 

Step 2: Make it a crime to have penis-vagina contact without at least two methods of contraception OR a written statement from both parties documenting a mutual desire to conceive a child, dated and witnessed BEFORE the sex. 

Step 2b (optional addition): Require by law that every single act of penis-vagina contact be preceded by a signed written statement from each partner, handed to the other partner: 
“I hereby consent to penis-vagina contact with [partner] on [date] and; It [is / is not] my intention to conceive a child (circle one).”
Having intercourse without the signatures of both parties would be a crime even if no child is conceived and both parties consented verbally to the intercourse. The law would require the written statements themselves, regardless of the outcomes of the sex.

Step 3: Allow free and unfettered access to abortion, but define it as murder under the law and hold the baby’s father solely responsible for all criminal charges. If the mother chooses abortion, the father goes to jail for, say, nine months. Or nine years, whatever. No additional consequences for mothers (beyond the emotional and physical trauma of the abortion), and no consequences for abortionists. [The doctor is not responsible for the unplanned pregnancy!]

Step 1 would put Planned Parenthood out of business because the government would essentially take over and expand their mission. Steps 2a and 2b would outlaw unplanned pregnancy, and hugely reduce the demand for abortions. Step 2b would have the happy side effect of eliminating sexual assault with penetration, or at least make it very easy to prosecute. Step 3 gives Pro-Lifers their long-sought murder definition, but puts the responsibility where it belongs: on those who care more about 'raincoats in the shower' than the lives of unborn babies. 

Now, before you rip me a new one in the comments, I know that there are many issues with this proposal. I also know that many of you are happy with Roe v. Wade just as it is. The point is not to adopt my proposal; the point is that we keep asking the wrong questions. 

The legality of abortion is all about effects when the debate should be about causes. It’s like arguing about whether starving children should be buried or cremated, instead of debating how to NOT HAVE starving children! 

This proposal is my attempt at answering these: “Why are there still unwanted pregnancies in the year 2019?” and “How can we prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place?” 

Look, we are facing the very real possibility of losing Roe v. Wade, and the inevitable government intrusion into our most private lives that would follow. Against that backdrop, the intrusive laws in my proposal look a lot less draconian, don’t you think? Put your thoughts in the comments. 

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Three Poems

I am trying to improve my poetry skills. If you take time to read these, please please please comment with feedback. Which of the three speaks to you most? Which least? Are they any good, really? Let me know...

Transition JD Stillwater, 2019 

Our fathers’ science 
reduces my selfhood to widgets
a model, a machine, 
idly ticking clockwork,

Our fathers’ religion
renders my body a shadow
a slut-shamed sleaze
a clay model, a precursor,

Our daughters’ science 
consecrates wholeness
First Light made mortal meat,
cosmic wind incarnate, 

Our daughters’ religion
marries meat and mind,
a sweaty pungent monument
a galaxy, a destination, 

a symphony. 

Cloudy With a Chance of Hell JD Stillwater, 2019

I just want to watch movies. 
Or browse YouTube. 

Something wrong with that?

I don’t want to walk to work, 
or ride my bike with a daypack. 

Gas is cheap now!

I want to lie on the floor, and relax
with a cuddly friend, maybe. 

I want a handbag with sequins that flip.

I want to be safe. 

I could use a new phone, one with 
a bigger screen and more colors.

Plan ahead? Why?
fares are cheap now  

Did you see that new thing? I
ordered one; it’ll be here tomorrow. 

I just want to be warm.

Why bother hanging them?
this new dryer is high-efficiency.

I don’t want to be good; I need
to de-stress and be fully present. 

I tried to be good once, to recycle, to 
do my part, to “save the world.”

Besides, nothing I do will make
any difference whatsoever. 

I want to fiddle while Rome burns, 

and picnic on the railroad tracks. 

This Body JD Stillwater, 2019

This body–
sweaty, stinky, earthy
bones, blood, breath
flabby, wrinkled, furtive
–is no mere shadow.

This body–
that shits and sings and
breathes and heaves and
mumbles and fumbles and
obsesses and professes and
over-eats and over-thinks and
flares and cares and shares and fails
–is no glove for a ghost. 

This body–
of clay and water
smoke and sunlight
salt and germs and meat
–is no fine-tuned apparatus. 

This body–
of sticky hairy 
lusty rusty bloody
slimy grimy snotty
oozing squirting farting
fecund fungus jungle 
pond scum arising to carnal flesh
–is no fallen depravity.

This body–
racing full-tilt after the 
flying football the 
almighty dollar the
gorgeous glamorous girl the
chance at glory or 
at least notoriety or
some whispered remembrance 
–is no clicking whirring clockwork. 

This body–
fertile no longer
but once, wonderfully
(cosmically, even)
still so vibrantly alive 
even as I walk
through the valley of the shadow of 
–is all I truly know. 

This body–
its own magic recipe
blueprint for itself
 like a seed
 like a spore
gathered ingredients
constructed from 
scrapings, pilferings
e unum pluribus
e pluribus unum
–is magic

This body–
the one you pronounce
so confidently 
to be mere
shadow on a cave wall, mere
predictable machine, mere
clothing for a ghost, mere
precursor to heavenly bliss
or eternal torment below,
–this body is real.

This body is mine. 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

What Folly!

Thinking about my own mortality, trying to apply a deep-time perspective. Should I buy a headstone? A vision came of some fool scurrying to mark the beach at each wave’s furthest reach. That ridiculous image sparked this short poem. 

What hubris is this wave traveling proud, sure to have glory on the sand!
What love abides adeep, enraptured of shimmering countenance above!
What folly, to erect the marble monument marking ripple’s furthest edge! 
How sacred the compassionate longing of ocean for these brief mortals!

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Guns, Tyranny, and Thinking Deeper

Well, now it’s out in the open. John Davidson, writing in The Federalist, asserts that the Second Amendment is not really about self defense or hunting. “The right to bear arms stems from the right of revolution.” Davidson and many others want to have recourse if and when tyranny rears its ugly head in America. 

I’ve heard hints of this before, as recently as last week. I responded with typical liberal talking-points, like “How is your little AR-15 supposed to protect your neighborhood against the full force and might of the U.S. Marines for God’s sake, against helicopter gunships, missiles, drones, and tanks?!” A fair question, but a rhetorical one, and one that I now think misses the point. The simple truth is that an armed population is much harder to control and subdue than an unarmed one. I think gun-control advocates often miss this. I did.

I also missed the historic truth that gun-control laws, especially the issuance of permits, has always been an avenue for discrimination against people of color. On the other hand, I also don’t think gun-rights advocates have actually thought through the implications of this “guns are for defending against tyranny” argument. 

Here are two such implications:

(1) Defining tyranny objectively is impossible. To the African-American community of the 1930’s, the American government was about as tyrannical as one can imagine. Is anyone arguing that Black people back then had a Second Amendment right to take up arms against the U.S. Government? If not, why not? What kinds of arms would they have needed, and how many, to prevail in that fight? 

As I watch the Trump administration blatantly violate the constitution’s emoluments clause, slander federal law enforcement agencies, undercut states’ rights, tromp on Americans’ private property rights along international pipeline routes, and sound increasingly like an authoritarian regime, I smell the approach of tyranny. At what point does the Second Amendment give me the right to take up arms in defense of basic American values of equality, liberty, property, and local control? Specifically, how does one determine that tyranny has arrived? What triggers a constitutionally legitimate revolution? Is there such a thing?

(2) When tyranny has indisputably arrived, the fascist dictator will not come to personally shoot dissidents. He will send law enforcement officers, our neighbors and friends in blue, to do that work. Using firearms to “defend against tyranny” means shooting at police officers. Sure, some officers may join the resistance, but the history of fascism makes it clear that law-enforcement officers will NOT KNOW who the good guys and bad guys are. They will do as ordered because it is their job to enforce the law of the land, however unjust or oppressive. And if they refuse, they and their families will suffer. 
If the tyrannical regime is concerned enough about local armed resistance, the regime will send in U.S. military troops instead of police. In that case, our patriotic gun-owning resisters will be shooting at neighbors and friends in camouflage fatigues with the American flag on their shoulders. Again, history is informative: the resistance will be crushed in short order. Taking up arms against tyranny equates to shooting at police officers and American troops in a short and pathetic suicide mission. 

What a quandary! Deterring oppression requires an armed populace, but actual armed resistance is ineffectual and morally indefensible. As is often the case, the solution is to quit thinking in either/or terms and try on some both/and approaches. Here are two possibilities, each with drawbacks and needing more thought, but a start:

1- States or counties could form "militias" (not standing armies, just part-time reserves), train and arm them, and issue military-style weapons (even automatic ones) to select individuals who have been properly trained and vetted. “Proper training” and vetting could be defined by third-party national organizations, similar to how Red Cross and American Heart define certification for CPR, and could include safe storage, a vow to never use them except in war, etc. At the same time, such military-grade weapons would be banned for personal use. The militias would be under the exclusive control of local government. 

2- A private third-party organization could be responsible for keeping a database in which all firearms (all types) would be registered by serial number. That organization could even be a cooperative whose voting members are gun owners themselves, the vast majority of whom are responsible law-abiding adults. In normal times, law enforcement would have access to specific records in the database with a warrant or other documentation of lawful purpose, but the cooperative would have the exclusive right to limit or cut off government access at any time, or to create policies limiting access to certain purposes or documentation. Guns not in the database would be “illegal” and possessors of them would be subject to prosecution and confiscation. 

I don’t pretend to have ready answers to the question of how to address gun violence in America, and I don’t believe there are any easy answers, especially when we consider the impacts of systemic racism on people of color when any new laws are implemented. However, I am certain that the status quo is immoral and politically unsustainable, and I doubt very much that either/or thinking will move us forward. Both “sides” have legitimate concerns. We need new ideas that can slide between the sound bites and talking points to forge both/and resolutions. 

I'd love to hear your thoughtful ideas in the comments. As always, argue to learn rather than to win