Alchemy

By Dr. Jim Ferguson

I’m not a numerologist, but I like palindromes. I hope you didn’t miss this rare tripartite palindrome on Groundhog Day, 02/02/2020.

Actually, my focus on February 2nd wasn’t on numerical arrangements, but on the Super Bowl game and whether Punxsutawney Phil would see his shadow. Fortunately, the Chiefs won in a great Super Bowl game, and Phil didn’t see his shadow, so we’ll have an early spring.

I am blessed, but admittedly I often whine during February. I maintain the only redeeming aspect of this month is that it’s short, and spring will soon be here. Unfortunately, this is a leap year and there will be twenty-nine days in February! Another numerical observation is that leap years occur on multiples of four and in every Presidential election season.

I never take the seasons for granted. Though many northerners retire to warmer climes, I could never live in a place without demonstrable seasons. We’re fortunate to live in Knoxville where we have four seasons and can look forward to the next.

I remember colder winters and more snow in Knoxville growing up in the 1950s and 60s. Weather cycles, and perhaps it has gotten warmer in recent years. Actually, that’s fine with me because as I’ve gotten older, I prefer warmer weather. I just read a NASA report addressing the sun’s relative inactivity and the possibility of a mini ice-age. I’m not worried because history shows the earth was quite warm during the Middle Ages, before the industrial revolution. Greenland was green then. And it was colder during the Maunder Minimum of 1645-1715 because sunspot activity was low for decades. Little Greta Thunberg obviously hasn’t studied climate history, and Al Gore is nothing but a charlatan.

These days it’s hard to ignore the Democrat impeachment farce, the incompetence of the “Hawkeye Cauci” or that giving Democrats power causes trouble. But, I’ll try, and focus on this week’s topic of interest: cycles.

I just finished a fascinating book on cycles called The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager. I took my garden for granted last summer, and it was a disaster. I didn’t know why until I read Hager’s book about the nitrogen cycle.

Though our atmosphere is composed of 21% oxygen and 78% nitrogen, the former is readily available and the latter is not. Atmospheric nitrogen exists as N2 which is tightly bound. This critical element must be split apart before it can be used for plant growth. Amazingly, only lightning bolts and certain microorganisms on plant roots are able to split the critical element into its useful form.

Centuries ago, Europeans discovered what Mesoamerican farmers had known for millennia. Certain salts (potassium nitrate or sodium nitrate) or guano (bird excrement) applied to gardens made them grow abundantly. In the 1800s a worldwide industry arose to harvest these salts and guano, and bring them to European farmers and governments. Farmers used nitrates to produce food and governments used nitrates to manufacture gunpowder.

Understandably, the reserves of guano and salts were soon depleted and near panic ensued. Two German chemists, Haber and Bosch, in the early nineteen hundred, developed a revolutionary process to literally transform air (nitrogen) into ammonia (guano is largely ammonium urate salts). The Haber-Bosch process is still used to produce ammonia (NH4) that is then made into fertilizer to feed the world. Interestingly, the ammonia produced in the H-B process can also be made into explosives which supported the WWII German war machine.

Other cycles exist all around us. I’ve been trying to teach my grandchildren about the water and rock cycles. Water condenses in clouds and falls as rain and is then evaporated by the sun to repeat the cycle. Rain washes sediment into rivers and is then pressed down over eons to form sedimentary rock. This rock is further compressed and heated deep in the earth to produce metamorphic rock which can be further heated to form igneous or volcanic rock.  The black sand beaches of Hawaii are the sediment of lava rocks.

To me the most intriguing cycle is the symbiosis between plants and animals. We use oxygen to drive our machines of metabolism. Carbon dioxide is a waste byproduct which we expire. Chlorophyll in plants (and trees) uses the sun’s energy and atmospheric carbon dioxide to make leaves and trees through the process of photosynthesis. This in turn releases oxygen back to the atmosphere for us.

The intricacies of life fascinate me. Consider the hemoglobin in our red blood cells which carries oxygen. Hemoglobin consists of a one hundred thirty-six atom ring molecule with iron at the ring’s center. Plant chlorophyll has the same one hundred thirty-six atom ring molecule, but with a central atom of magnesium instead of iron.

Alchemy is an ancient philosophical and pseudoscientific pursuit whose goals were universal cures, immortality or the transmutation of base metals like iron into noble metals such as gold (Merriam-Webster). We now understand that it is impossible to change iron with twenty-six nuclear protons into gold with seventy-nine protons. Ancients observed that salts like potassium nitrate erupted into fire when heated. We now know this is a chemical reaction involving electrons rather than nucleons (protons and neutrons). Nuclear reactions were beyond the scope of humans before 1919 when Ernest Rutherford first bombarded nitrogen (seven protons) with alpha particles (helium-4) to produce oxygen (eight protons).

Having been trained in science rather than in letters, I understand these concepts, though I would never claim to be an expert. I comprehend Hager’s artistic conceit when he entitled his book The Alchemy of Air. Haber and Bosch did change atmospheric nitrogen N2 to ammonia NH4, but this was molecular chemistry not nuclear alchemy.

I am a trained observer, and this week I perceived alchemy at the SOTU (State of the Union) address. I witnessed hate’s alchemy with the “transmutation” of Nancy Pelosi, who was once human and now has become a harpy. Curious? Look up this mythological creature and consider this entity as third in line to the Presidency.

 

 

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