Wednesday, January 05, 2011

International Year of Chemistry and Forests

The United Nations officials have defined the year 2011 as the International Year of Forests and the International Year of Chemistry. This blog entry is my celebration, and the only celebration, of these two bureaucratic events.



Boubín, a protected virgin forest in Šumava, i.e. the Bohemian and Bavarian forest on our border with Germany

Forests and your humble correspondent

Czechia is - and even Czechoslovakia was - a rather small landlocked country so we have a somewhat limited understanding of what "Nature" and "wild life" represent. Forests play an important role in shaping the meaning of the word "nature" in minds such as mine. They are among the environments we imagine when we talk about the world before the civilization era.




34.1% of the Czech territory is covered by forests.

That puts us somewhere in the middle of the list of countries. We surely have many fewer forests than Sweden with 65.9% or Cook Islands with 95.7% but there are many more forests here than in the Netherlands with 11.1% ;-) and many of our forests are much deeper than what the people in countries such as France typically know.

A bulk of the "deep forests" in Czechia are composed of coniferous trees - an artifact of the human activities in the recent centuries. Even in the early 1980s when I was a small schoolkid, we were taught that the propagation of monocultures was a somewhat bad policy that was waiting to be undone because the broad-leaved trees and the diversity they brought were important. But these days, I think that these worries were overdone: coniferous forests are just OK. They're just different.

Czechs often go mushroom hunting. Some nations don't have this tradition - even though they may have very tasty mushrooms in their forests. It's funny to listen to the Americans' excuses why they don't do any mushroom hunting. They would surely be poisoned immediately.

Well, dear Yankees :-), one can learn to pick mushrooms safely enough much like one may learn the multiplication table. One or a few simple criteria is really enough to almost guarantee that a mushroom is edible. ;-)

Years ago, I have spent lots of time in the forests. The Czech and Slovak mountains dominated among the forests; in the U.S., the only noteworthy forests were the redwood forests in Santa Cruz where I spent H1 of 2000. Impressive trees, indeed.

In the Czech Republic, there have been lots of controversies about the bark beetle that likes to exploit the Bohemian Forests - and Bavarian Forest - or "Šumava", as we call the mountains on the Czech-German Southern border (with a tiny portion belonging to Austria). In the recent decade, the beetle became very active once again.

Some environmentalists like to say that it is unacceptably unnatural to fight against this guy. Well, even though I have spent weeks as a teenager by helping the trees in Šumava, I am much closer to the side of the likes of Miloš Zeman, a former nominally social democratic prime minister (who promoted Reaganomics in the Czech economy), who have criticized these environmentalist bigots. The parasites should be fought against (I primarily mean the bark beetles, not the environmentalists).

Don't get me wrong: the bark beetles don't kill the forest. The forest may exist and thrive even when it includes lots of dead trees. But the humans have simply learned how to manage the forest life more efficiently from an economic viewpoint. So lots of dead trees damage the economy of the forests.

Is the primordial form of the forests priceless? Many years ago, I may have answered "Yes" to this question. The humans are changing the world and it's important to keep a "natural museum" showing how the world looked like before we became so powerful. However, these days, I would probably answer "No". The term "virgin forests" is chosen in such a way that it creates the impression that the "cultivation" is irreversible. Once you lose your virginity, you will never become a virgin again.

However, I think that the terminology is misleading because the irreversibility doesn't apply to the forests. In fact, virgin forests are the "high entropy" state of the forest that each forest will natually converge to a few centuries after the eradication of the humans, if I put it this optimistically. ;-)

So I no longer think it is important to try to protect a high percentage of the Earth's surface as covered by virgin forests. Obviously, I find it important that the percentage of the "lungs" on the surface doesn't decrease, at least not dramatically. But whether they're primary or secondary, I don't really care. They may become primary after some time, anyway. In some cases, the difference is of a historical character, not a result of operationally testable differences. It's useful to have a few places that look almost identically as they used to look. But that's it.

At the beginning, I mentioned the Netherlands that only has 11.1% of their territory covered by forests. Of course, it is a highly civilized, densely populated country which makes a lot of difference. I have always been impressed how "totally cultural" their landscape is. Looking at some of the Dutch structures on the land and on the sea from the airplane is simply amazing. Of course, I don't want the Czech forest cover to decrease from 34% to 11% but if the only question were whether the forests should be as "managed" as the Dutch landscape, my answer would probably be that it's just fine to manage it.

Rain forests are a slightly different stories. The nations surrounding these "lungs of the planet" are often very poor. While they may "own" the rain forests in some technical sense, it is important for the civilized countries to realize that this ownership relationship is not "total" because the nations have no real tools to protect "their assets" against others.

So more civilized nations should perhaps guarantee a sensible environment for the poorer nations around the rain forests that will prevent those folks from destroying the rain forest for stupid reasons - or reasons that look stupid from the viewpoint of our priorities and values. If those poor folks would destroy a piece of a forest whose value may be estimated as $100 billion by us, and they will only do it to gain $1 billion, well, we should better try to pay them $1 billion - in cash or in goods - to cancel their plans. ;-)

It's as simple as that.



Chemistry

Chemistry was born as a child of two parents - alchemy and the scientific method.

Among the intelligent people, the mother alchemy died as soon as the child chemistry was born. Before the birth, alchemy didn't know the scientific method: it was a protoscience. Nevertheless, in a chaotic way - driven by people's predetermined "applications" such as their dream to create gold out of any shit and the dream to produce the elixir of longevity - the alchemists have invented many elementary methods that were simply inherited by the daughter.

Chemistry is all about the properties of different materials - solids, gases, liquids, and especially solutions - especially when it comes to their ability to interact with other materials and produce new kinds of materials (and/or energy) as a result.

This is a physics blog so you shouldn't be shocked to hear that chemistry is just a small portion of physics studied in a more mindless and less curious universalist way. ;-) In particular, the whole nontrivial and conceptual essence of chemistry boils down to atomic and molecular physics, pretty much exactly described by the non-relativistic Schrödinger equation, and that's it. In the 1920s, physics has understood chemistry, swallowed it, and since that time, chemistry is just a small autonomous province of the empire of physics.

Chemists aren't called atomic and molecular physicists only because they are much more obsessed with hundreds of examples of chemical processes and their applications rather than their desire to understand why they exist and why they have the observed properties.

I didn't have much access to chemistry when I was a kid. It was interesting to see some wild effects but spectacular effects were never a top real priority of myself so I didn't care much. While I would always get an "A" from chemistry at the elementary school (which included some limited controlled lab experiments) - all my elementary school grades were "A", after all - I received as bad grades as a "D" (4 of 5, to be more accurate) at the high school. This "D" was the worst final grade I have ever received; not even the physical training could compete. :-)

The bad grade was partly due to my personal fights with our very robust teacher. ;-)

A few months later, the Velvet Revolution began in Czechoslovakia. I was one of the high school's top anti-communist dissidents and moreover, the kids were suddenly in charge of the country since the end of 1989. :-) We have voted that we no longer wanted her to be our teacher so the 300-pound lady - note that I didn't call her an 800-pound gorilla - had to go away.

The teacher wanted me to copy a 100-page notebook because of a few things such as a drawing of an apple next to some text about the malic acid (apple acid in Czech). When I refused to do that in front of the class, she psychologically exploded and melted. But of course, there were other things at stake. I hated to memorize dozens of meaningless formulae and isolated facts about various compounds that looked useless to me and didn't help to enrich my understanding of the world, anyway.

A major part of my bad relationships to chemistry was based on my ignorance of quantum mechanics; I didn't really believe that the "explanations" were fundamentally right. I only understood why quantum mechanics worked - and how it worked - when I was 17 years old or so - a year after the fall of communism. So the previous stories about the shells and electron clouds were just unacceptable for me. They didn't fit into my dogmas of that time. Of course, after several mistakes of this magnitude, I became very careful in avoiding all kinds of unsubstantiated dogmas.

Needless to say, once I knew that I was wrong about many things related to quantum mechanics, many of my other teenage attitudes to chemistry may have been classified as deeply flawed, too. Chemistry is an important science. And of course, because its physical pillars are damn solid, as I know today, and because of its numerous experimental tests and applications, one has to take its conclusions seriously. Well, I still think that we were memorizing too much irrelevant technical stuff - isolated insights that are not linked to anything universally important.

This is a comment I would make about most of the things we have ever been learning at school. However, when one notices that the current generation of kids is apparently so much less skillful in learning things at school than we used to be, it makes one wonder whether the "useless stuff" was really so "useless".

You might conjecture that the "anti-quantum zealots" drive me up the wall especially because I recognize that I used to share their current attitudes when I was 16 years or less. But it's not really the case. In the case of the "anti-quantum zealots", I can at least recognize some of their drivers - the deeply felt belief that the inner workings of the world has to be rooted in the classical intuition. I don't know why it takes decades or life for them to understand why quantum mechanics is just right - while I, a relative former classical bigot, still needed just a few months to give up my flawed beliefs.

But it's still true that I encounter lots of stupidity in the world of the kinds that I have never experienced - and these kinds of stupidity are much more stunning for me than some fundamental mistakes that I have done myself. If someone believes e.g. that the world can't possibly have anything to do with mathematics or some exact mathematical formulae, I am simply flabbergasted. Fortunately, those people usually get decoupled from any deeper scientific debate very quickly so no full war with them erupts.

But that was too much stuff about crackpots, psychology, and my personal education history, so let me stop this rant.

Vivat forests and chemistry but screw the United Nations! ;-)

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