Monday, January 21, 2019

Element of the Month: Thorium!

January's Element of the Month:


Atomic Mass: 232.03806 amu
Melting Point: 1750 °C
Boiling Point: 4788 °C

So, if the sun produces its awesomely convenient life-sustaining heat and light through an endless (for present purposes) process of atomic fusion, than why aren't we blasted off the face of the planet by lethal radiation every morning? "Because God intelligently designed it so we wouldn't be" is a reasonably coherent response, especially if it's a shortcut for "because an organism could not evolve within an environment in which it could not survive," but I'm thinking more about the mechanism here. And a mechanism is needed, because the "solar wind" is a real and potent thing. You may have seen it light up the northern sky in an aurora, or blasting a tail of debris off of any passing comet, and thought to yourself "dang, here is a force not to be messed with." You'd be right! If the sun's radioactive discharge didn't blast your own tail off directly, it would over time blast away our lovely planet's atmosphere, with important ecological consequences.

Fortunately, we have the Earth's magnetic field, which repels just the right amount of radiation to let the luckier among us muddle through our threescore and ten. Because the world is a big ol' magnet, there are two (and occasionally an ephemeral third) powerful fields around the planet that capture high energy electrons and protons, keeping them from reaching the atmosphere or surface, and generally keeping things copacetic. Thanks, Van Allen belts!

Wait, though. Why is the world a big ol' magnet? Well, that's because much of the innards of the Earth is a metallic liquid, mostly consisting of workhorse Elements Iron and Nickel, which circulate in a constant convective motion. "Convective motion" means that hot matter becomes less dense and rises up, while cooling matter becomes more dense and sinks, and so stuff moves in circles. The classic example of convection is on the stovetop, where you can watch little gyres of confection form in your boiling water or soup or whatever.

I haven't been able to find good information on how fast the Earth's internal metallic slurry is cycling around, and although I bet there are some educated guesses I also suspect that we don't really know. What we do know is that when you spin "ferromagnetic" metals (Iron! Nickel!) around each other, it generates magnetic fields and/or electricity. It's how generators work. Heck, you probably remember messing with magnets and wires back in science class, when you were young and every day was still a new miracle. All this means that Planet Earth, although not an especially powerful magnet per cubic centimeter, is certainly a really, really big magnet -- big enough to generate the Van Allen belts. Thanks, geomagnetism!

That brings us to today's question, which is "why is it so hot in the planet's interior?" That's important, because you need heat to drive the convective currents that generate the magnetic fields that moderate the powerful rays of the sun... which are however not powerful enough to heat the planetary interior, so there must be yet something else going on.

There are a couple of things that keep it hot down there. One thing is just the pressure of the outer portions of the planet crushing down on the interior, but that doesn't really count because it is steady and evenly distributed; it doesn't generate any new heat. There is, however, some very old "new" heat still being dissipated, which is the impact energy of the Earth's own formation. Let's ignore that part, though, because the "new" "new" heat that drives convection within the Earth comes from the radioactive decay of atomic Elements. Now, once upon a time, long before you were born even, the internal heat of the Earth was much greater, fueled by the radioactive decay of Uranium and a radioactive isotope of Potassium, Potassium-40. But K-40 has a half-life of only 1.25 billion years, so more than 90% of the interior's original stock has already done the radioactive-decay thing, and then Uranium is well known to be a bit of an eager beaver as well.

Enter Thorium.

The Centerfold!

This is apparently Thorium.  But what I know about Thorium or anything else?

A heavy silvery metal that is radioactive, but not wildly radioactive, Thorium has a half-life more than ten times as long as Potassium-40. In fact, it has a half-life that is three times as long as the age of the planet, meaning that of all of the Thorium that we started with, we must have... geez... oh, something like 85% of it still left? So it's still down there, decaying very very slowly, releasing the heat that convects the Iron/Nickel that generates the magnetic field that blocks the hard radiation that would desolate the planet! All part of the weird Rube Goldberg machine that keeps Earth habitable for your benefit!

Now, a couple caveats. First is, nobody really knows for sure what's going on in the core, and many geophysicists think that it's pretty much pure nickel and iron down there, with the Thorium action all taking place only in the lower mantle. That would still make it important for all things tectonic and geothermal, but would make it less of a day-to-day player in the geomagnetism business.

The other caveat is that when I say that Thorium is "mildly" radioactive, that doesn't mean you should keep piles of it around the house. For that matter, it was probably a bad idea in retrospect for generations of outdoor gear suppliers to exploit the fact that Thorium filament glows with a very clear and bright light and use it as the go-to material for lantern mantles. Turns out that's a bang-up way to generate small but maybe significant amounts of Radon, which is nasty stuff. Also, although the mantles were probably OK in their unlit state for the average lantern user, you probably wouldn't want to be a worker at the lantern-mantle factory. For obvious reasons, this and other commercial uses of Thorium have long been on the phase-out. At the same time, there is occasional interest and a few prototypes of Thorium atomic power plants. In theory, these seem like a good idea -- you'd need more a lot more fuel to generate significant amounts of power, because the fuel is pretty mellow... but the fuel is pretty mellow, so perhaps it would be easier to contain and control safely? Or that could just be me being extremely naive.

Thorium was isolated and identified by Jöns Jacob Berzelius, one of the brainiest of the brainy Swedish chemists of the 19th Century. He also bagged Silicon, Selenium, and Cerium, let his grad students get the credit for Lithium and Vanadium, invented some of the basic vocabulary of chemistry, and developed a shorthand notation in which Elements were represented by letters with little numbers to show their relative proportions in a substance -- in fact, the system we use today. If you ever end up taking a Chemistry test in the afterlife, and you are sitting next to Jöns Jacob Berzelius, you will be tempted to peek at his answers.

Mr. Berzelius, artist unknown, University of
Oxford Museum of the History of Science

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Ladder of Art -- Week #8

Cast your votes for up to four of these seven artists by Friday the 25th.  For clarifications, consult the Ladder of Art FAQ.

Last Week's Results

This Week's Contest

Frank Auerbach
Born 1931
German; works in the UK

Tournament Record: Placed 485th. Lost to John James Audubon and Hendrick Avercamp. 6 votes for, 21 votes against (.222).

Roy Lichtenstein
1923 - 1997

Tournament Record: Placed 486th (tie). Lost to the Limbourg Brothers and Sol LeWitt. 5 votes for, 18 votes against (.217).

Yves Klein
1928 - 1962

Tournament Record: Placed 486th (tie). Lost to Paul Klee and Franz Kline. 5 votes for, 18 votes against (.217).

Sir Godfrey Kneller
1646 - 1723
German; worked in Britain

Tournament Record: Placed 488th (tie). Lost to Oskar Kokoschka and Raoul Hausmann. 5 votes for, 20 votes against (.200).

Baron Antoine-Jean Gros
1771 - 1835

Tournament Record: Placed 492th (tie). Lost to Juan Gris and Greuze. 4 votes for, 20 votes against (.167).
  • Placed Third in Ladder Week #5
  • Tied for Third in Ladder Week #6
  • Tied for Fourth in Ladder Week #7

Charles-François Daubigny
1817 - 1878

Tournament Record: Placed 505th.  Lost to Salvador Dali and Aelbert Cuyp. 4 votes for, 26 votes against (.133).
  • Finished First in Ladder Week #2
  • Finished First again in Week #4 
  • ...and again in Week #6

1581 - 1641

Tournament Record: Placed 507th (tie).  Lost to Donatello and Dosso Dossi. 3 votes for, 21 votes against (.125).
  • Tied for First, Ladder Rung #1 
  • First Place, Week #3
  • Tied for First, Week #5
  • Tied for Fourth in Week #7

Cast up to four votes in the comments by Friday morning!

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Left Bracket Sixth Round: Picasso v. Ely!

When Leonardo da Vinci advanced to take on Monet on Tuesday, it sent Timothy Ely (5-1, 50-41, .549) over to the Left Bracket to take on the winner of Rockwell v. Picasso.  It turns out that's Picasso (8-1, 78-32, .709).  The Spaniard has huge name recognition, but he's taking on a Northwest UnitedStatsian artist on his home court.  Who knows what crazy art-related things might happen! 

Norman Rockwell, what a Tournament that man had!  He came in only 33rd in the First Round of the Play-In Tournament, then surged just enough to claim one of the 12 golden tickets to the Big Show in the Second Round, and after that just kept gutting it out for an amazing ride that featured a ten to five win over Raphael.  Yes, that Rafael.  Rockwell's .673 final voting average puts him at third place among the 483 artists who have left the Tournament, and -- keep in mind -- there are only 29 still standing! 

Pablo Picasso
1881 - 1973
Pablo Picasso [was] one of the greatest and most-influential artists of the 20th century and the creator (with Georges Braque) of Cubism. The enormous body of Picasso’s work remains, and the legend lives on—a tribute to the vitality of the “disquieting” Spaniard with the “sombre…piercing” eyes who superstitiously believed that work would keep him alive. For nearly 80 of his 91 years, Picasso devoted himself to an artistic production that contributed significantly to and paralleled the whole development of modern art in the 20th century.
- Encyclopedia Britannica

Timothy Ely
born 1949
Timothy C. Ely is an renowned and enigmatic figure in the book world. He is part of that discipline, yet lives and works in a universe apart. His one-of-kind manuscript books combine elaborate and often mysterious painted and drawn folios contained within finely crafted bindings, which are his inventions or variations on traditional binding techniques. Each book carries layers of both materials and meaning. Close study of each drawing can elicit revelations, personal to each viewer.
- Abby Schoolman Books
  • Took First Place in Phase 1, Flight 7, with a voting score of .813.
  • Tied for First in Phase 2, Flight 5 of the Play-In Tournament with a voting score of .500.
  • Laid a beating on William Dobson in Round 1.
  • Surprised Man Ray in Round 2.
  • Upset Édouard Manet in Round 3 by a single vote. YOUR VOTE COUNTS!!!
  • Beat fellow Play-In Tournament artist Ernst Haeckel in Round 4.
  • Stunned Henri Matisse in Round 5.
  • Lost badly to Leonardo da Vinci in Round 6.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Elite Eight: Leonardo da Vinci v. Monet

The "Elite Eight" are the last eight undefeated artists from the original field of 512.  This is the third of the four Seventh-Round matches!  You're welcome.

Leonardo da Vinci
1452 - 1519
Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most intriguing personalities in the history of Western art. Trained in Florence as a painter and sculptor in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo is also celebrated for his scientific contributions. Leonardo’s curiosity and insatiable hunger for knowledge never left him. He was constantly observing, experimenting, and inventing, and drawing was, for him, a tool for recording his investigation of nature. Although completed works by Leonardo are few, he left a large body of drawings (almost 2,500) that record his ideas, most still gathered into notebooks. He was principally active in Florence and Milan, but spent the last years of his life in Rome and France, where he died. His genius as an artist and inventor continues to inspire artists and scientists alike centuries after his death.
- The Met's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
  • Pounded Sir Peter Lely in Round 1.
  • Skunked Stanley William Hayter in Round 2.
  • Beat the Limbourg Brothers in Round 3 by a two-vote swing. YOUR VOTE COUNTS!!!
  • Made it easily past El Lissitzky, though many voters expressed mixed feelings, in Round 4.
  • Blasted past Klee in Round 5.
  • Trounced Timothy Ely in Round 6.

Claude Monet
1840 - 1926
Claude Monet was a key figure in the Impressionist movement that transformed French painting in the second half of the nineteenth century. Throughout his long career, Monet consistently depicted the landscape and leisure activities of Paris and its environs as well as the Normandy coast. He led the way to twentieth-century modernism by developing a unique style that strove to capture on canvas the very act of perceiving nature.
- - The Met's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
  • Skunked! Skunked Henry Moore in Round 1
  • Skunked! Skunked Fernand Léger in Round 2
  • Beat Gustave Moreau easily in Round 3.
  • Defeated Norman Rockwell in the Fourth Round by a single vote. YOUR VOTE COUNTS!!!
  • Beat Georgia O'Keeffe in Round 5.
  • Got past Patinir in Round 6.

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Game of Reading Becomes Even More of a Closed Loop Than Usual

Hey, let's check out how things are going with the Game of Reading! Looks like the last update here was in, hmm, April 2017, when I came up with a policy for what to do if I wanted to abandon a book.  Haven't actually used that policy yet, as it turns out, but it's certainly good to have it in place!

Yes, I am still playing the Game of Reading.  To recap: I only begin a book when I can play a (virtual) card from my (virtual) hand of ten.  Yes, it is often inconvenient, thanks for asking.  But, it's has also given the long-term planning version of Michael5000, the version of him that's all like "Here's the Kind of Reading I'd Like to be Doing in My Life," a great deal of power over the indolent day-to-day version of Michael5000, who would probably just be re-reading The Alchemist and Eat, Pray, Love and the manga version of The Life-Changing Joy of Tidying Up over and over again if someone wasn't exerting a strong hand.

What's the Game of Reading, again?

The basic structure has stayed the same.  When I started the project in 2016, with an intention to explore the concept of re-reading, I brought the complete list of everything I had read from 2009 to 2011 (as logged on over, each as a card in a (virtual) deck.  Then, there are a bunch of other cards: genres, challenging book types of various kinds, ask-a-friend cards, and a small handful of "game" cards that allow you to do things like, for instance, "discard three cards from your hand and draw up."

In 2017, I added the 2012 books and fine-tuned the deck a little bit.  In 2018, when the 2013 books came in, I capped the size of the deck at 700 cards and added a minor innovation: for a number of the "game" cards, I have to run a certain number of miles to trigger them -- cross-endeavor pollination!  2018 turned out to be a tough Game of Reading year, in that the top hundred or so cards of the deck were overwhelmingly individual titles, which didn't give me a lot of wiggle-room, and many of the titles were a bit on the challenging side too.  Which in turn meant that I got to do a lot of interesting re-reading, for instance of War and Peace.  It's all good.

New! for 2019!

With the 700-card cap in place, it put a real squeeze on this year's deck when the 2014 books were added.  I resolved this in part by further reducing the number of precious, precious "Unrestricted Book" cards.  This increases the difficulty level, but will make the "UBs" even more of a treat when they come along, I suppose.  (You, who basically have a full hand of Unrestricted Book cards all the time, don't know how to savor them.)  I also made room to raise the number of "game" cards, because those are always a hoot when I draw them.  Some of the new ones are inspired by cards in the game Pandemic.

The Current Hand

Here's what I'm holding at the moment.
  •  2018 Card #257: Master and Commander This is the first book of Patrick O'Brian's magnificent 20-volume "Aubrey/Maturin" series.  By rule, I could play it on any volume, but I recently finished my second reading of the entire series, and I've been hanging on to this card because I haven't decided whether I want to eye-read or ear-read the cycle the next time around.
  • 2018 Card #190: On Beauty
  • 2018 Card #346: Beowulf
  • 2018 Card #632: "Ask Chuckdaddy."  Chuck, who is himself off on a tear with that 100 Great Books list that was going around last year, assigned James Baldwin's Another Country.  I decided to do an audiobook, and have been waiting in the reserve line for a couple of months.
  • 2018 Card #279: The Last Days of Pompeii.  This is a real poison pill of a card.  No less a commentator than, um, me, has described this Victorian potboiler as "so tedious that to read it is an act of sheer willpower carried out chapter by slow chapter."  In this situation, you just hope for a "game" card to come along that will let you discard it.
  • 2018 Card #646: "Ask Morgan."  
  • Christmas 2018 Bonus Card: Unrestricted Book: By special rule, I get two of these for Christmas every year.
  • Card #637: "Ask Maddy."  Maddy, who all about the early 19th century novel, has assigned me Fanny Burney's Evalina.
  • Card #288: Unnatural DeathThis title from Dorothy Sayers's "Lord Peter Whimsey" series is a nice piece of light fiction in a rather heavy hand.  Using the serial fiction rule, I will use it to ear-read another Whimsey book, Striding Folly, when it comes off of hold.
  • Card #631: "Ask Chuckdaddy."  Well, that's an interesting coincidence.  Chuck got into the spirit of the thing and had lots of ideas about what he might recommend back at card #632, so it was easy for him to pick a second choice: The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  I've got it on hold!

 Let's Play!

So, about that "Ask Morgan" card.  When I told Morgan I had drawn it, he said "Do some Game of Reading write-ups on the Blog."  Now, that's an unorthodox response, so it had to go up to the reviewing officials in the booth, but the determination was that it was sufficiently analogous to the cards that require me to write posts in my Bible blog, and book-related, to be within bounds.

So, what am I doing right now?   Right now, as I write this post?  Why, I'm doing a Game of Reading write-up on the blog!  That means I have played 2018 Card #646!  Which is very exciting, because it means that I must now draw up!  Here goes:

It's Card #484!  That's too high to be an individual book, but too low to be a "game" card.  Let's check the chart!

Card #484 is one of the four "Western" cards, ladies and gentlemen!  How interesting!  The last time I drew one of these, I read my first ever Louis L'Amour.  This time, I'll read my first ever Zane Gray.  Fresh literary territory for Michael5000!  Thanks, Game of Reading!