December 10, 2016

Here’s a short piece about the largely hidden from view interdependency and integral nature of ‘things in general’. A bit vague I know, but my aim is to shed a little light on how things are as they are, and how thus they are not radically different to as they are, and so to show that this is the case because of things which we might consider as lay people to be inconsiderable things.

We have in folk tale already the adage ‘when a parrot sneezes a polar bear catches a cold’ – I might not have the animals and the directions exactly right, but you get the idea.

This popular adage pays service to the interconnectivity and interdependence of  all things in a quasi-mystical way – because we are left here and no further – with the poles being intimately connected to the tropics via a cold virus; yet we get nothing, we are told nothing about the transmission from A to Z of the virus.

By using the example of the chemical element potassium I am hoping to draw a clearer path with marker points on it all the way along which credibly demonstrates the Gaia movement to be rather more in the frame for accuracy than will allow that fanciful ambience of doubt which colours it in popular imagination.

Gaia is a little passé with many people – a thing of the trendy 70s, a time when love was made much of and zany theories prevailed which tended to come at you from ‘off the wall’.  The foundational proposition of Gaia is that the earth is an organism; and that it behaves like an organism behaves; so the when a finger or a foot is cut or bruised there is shock to the whole nervous and physiological system.

One might see that a person sympathetic to this basic idea of Gaia would subscribe more willingly to the Polar Bear/Parrot enigma than say a person who prefers a mechanistic view of natural and sublunary processes.  I myself say - yes – there is a vein of cheesy romanticism in the basic idea of Gaia, a vein which weakens its appeal to more robust thinkers; yet it is in my opinion far better to err on the side of love and compassion than to harden one’s heart by way of one’s robust ideological stance and thus offer oneself every excuse and justification to pillage the earth without conscience.

I am sure the Chinese who are lifting up whole mountains and transporting them from the Australian outback to the industrial cities of Cathay to turn them into iron goods; I am sure these brave new entrepreneurs have no qualms, no sense of desecrating a holy temple or to be less dramatic, of lacerating a limb of Mother Earth.

I am sure also that the persons who dump so much material goods in landfills simply because they want new models and up to date designs for their household; their previous items being two or three years old and so cosmetically defunct in the fantasy world of consumerist marketing; I am sure these people do not blink nor raise an eyebrow about the wanton harm they are doing to England’s Green and Pleasant Land.

The scientists by a vast majority are very much so, and pride themselves in being, hard-headed; no room for sentiment or for wishful desire in their sanitary labs of clinical research.  These toys are for old ladies and for those who have no education; for those who have more feeling than ratio; for those who prefer hogwash to truth.  I am aware of persons who have been eminent in the sciences until they broke ranks and suggested that such an idea as Gaia, or synchronicity, or of a collective unconscious, is an eminent eligible possibility; upon which suggestion to their fellows they have been cast out into the wilderness of sin and the Mark of Cain placed up their foreheads denoting persona non grata. Doomed to wander for a generation there until they are either lost and forgotten, or else rehabilitated as an historical curiosity, like a grandma’s mantelpiece ornaments.

On the other hand, those whose whacky ideas make good in the laissez faire free for all of publish and be damned research arenas; these are the victors to whom go the spoils; in the shape of their fames steering whole generations of science and scientists in the wake of their trajectories.  I am not suggesting that there is no discrimination or right judgement in these decisions of history; only that they are not infallible; as in the case of one of our topics concerning potassium and relate here below today; that is, in the case of plate tectonics and continental drift.

The idea of plate tectonics and of continental drift was first floated (my little pun!) as a fully-fledged theory back around the years immediately before the First World War; and at that time it was considered to be too wild and whacky to be a serious contender for recognition.  Like Martin Peters and Tim Berners-Lee it was ahead of its time.  In short, there was not enough firm knowledge about the genesis and evolution of the earth as a planet so as to make the theory stick; too many sinkholes and too much shifting sand.

With science and what we call progress it is the case always, as The Preacher of Ecclesiastes tells us, that;

“Time and chance happeneth to all’

Only in the late 1960s was the idea and theory of Plate Tectonics and Continental Drift established as a reliable basis for doing geology. By this time a logjam of evidence had accrued which were jigsaw pieces which did not fit the puzzle as it was imagined to be; so that the adoption of Plate Tectonics and Continental Drift as a valid theory was able to reimagine the puzzle so that the floating anomalous logjam of pieces now fitted it far better.  Peaks and troughs indeed.

Potassium. Potassium is an element; a chemical which may not be reduced to simpler ingredients without moving into the realms of the study of physics.  Its symbol is K; which is also the name given by Kafka to his heroes in his stories; a loose straggling but maybe interesting piece of information for you?  It is in bananas; and it is an essential mineral for the continuance of human life; but like alcohol and nicotine – also essential elements for human life for many people -  too much potassium kills one.  And one does not have to ingest an awful lot of potassium in one go to be in the frame for impending death.  I believe it stops the heart; not a thrombosis but a stop dead. Sudden. Without warning.

Potassium is also radioactive; thus bananas are radioactive. Now nearly everything in fact is radioactive; there are residual and background levels everywhere we tread; but bananas are significantly radioactive and it is the potassium in them which causes them to be so. But we need our potassium so keep eating your bananas but not too many per day.

There’s little harm in holding a container of potassium in your hand; it is when the old Scottish adage comes into place that potassium begins to become a mover and shaker of things. That old Scottish adage is indeed; ‘Many a mickle makes a muckle’ – or in English ‘Many a small thing makes a big thing’.

Potassium is a pretty common element on earth, as elements go.  The massive amounts of iron and silica and calcium oxygen nitrogen etc in the composition of the earth dwarf the amount of potassium available here, but yet there is a long tail of minute amounts of most of the remaining elements available on earth, and potassium is well towards the thicker end of the tail.

Like all radioactive, I mean seriously radioactive elements and compounds potassium whilst it is irradiating is also generating heat as part of its long decomposition into a lower atomic state. I have no idea of its half-life; only I know that half-lives are generally very, very long durations of time.  The name half-life is deceptive to those who are unfamiliar with the term; it does not tell you half the lifetime of a radioactive substance; it tells you how long it takes for a radioactive substance to lose half its radioactive power.  Post half-life and the substance will lose its radioactivity at an ever increasing rate of time and at an ever decreasing rate of loss.  Just like human life except in reverse.

Potassium is pretty ubiquitous in the makeup of rocks and geological features; a small density of it is everywhere – remember the mickle/muckle thing. Now potassium is the crucial element in the composition of the geological earth which generates the heat which keeps the earth’s core hot and the outer core molten.  I believe the rate of heat is something like a raise of one degree Celsius for every kilometre of depth into the earth one goes. Thus at 30 kilometres down potassium is responsible for temperatures 30 degrees higher than the temperature immediately below the earth’s surface.

Since the radius of the earth is thousands of kilometres this increase adds up to immense and intense heat as one goes down and further down.

If you are not familiar with Continental Drift and Plate Tectonic theory maybe I should give you a short resume here?  The earth’s continents it is now pretty certain float on a vast body of molten and semi-molten rocks below them.  The rock which makes up the continents is in general lighter in weight than the molten etc rocks they float upon. Simple as that.  The continents crusts are thicker than the sea beds’ crusts; they are a little like icebergs and below the surface they penetrate downwards in equal proportions to the heights they rise to in the earth’s atmosphere. Thus the crust of the continents is thickest below ground, below the Himalayas and the Andes and the Rockies – you will get the picture.

The sea bed crusts are thin, much thinner than the crusts of continents. Continents on the whole contain mostly older rocks whereas sea floors are always young rocks, very young, in fact freshly solidified rocks.  Down the length of the Atlantic Ocean, from latitudes of Iceland in the north to those of Patagonia in the South; towards the centre of the distance between Europe and the Americas, and between Africa and The Americas runs what is called a mid–Atlantic ridge; a submerged and very deep ‘valley’ in the ocean bed.  There are these mid-ocean ridges in all of the oceans of the world; and everywhere in them (in general) the same earth processes are happening as I speak.

At these mid-ocean ridges new land is being formed; new crust which eventually has a good chance of ending up as part of a continent of older rocks.  At these mid-ocean ridges the earth is split open and along a line of the ‘valley’ bottom spews out day and night constantly in great volumes hot fierce boiling lava. This lava is the new sea floor being made; and like a shove-halfpenny board; or one of those cheating machines at fun arcades which offer you to win coins by you posting your coin so that it pushes a carpet of other persons’, former players’ coins over an edge into the kitty you win – except you never do; like this, the new lava pushing forth spreads out the formerly newly made sea floor in two directions – in effect pushing America away from Europe, and Europe from America a little more every year.

The other side of the globe the same thing is happening in the Pacific; India and Australia are being pushed away from America and America is being pushed away from India and Australia by the Pacific ocean ridges.  Work it out: something has to give: America is squashed, like a sandwich, or by pincers.

At the point where The Andes in the South and The Rockies in the North stand proud of the sea and of all the lands about them; they signify as testimony and are the result of this squashing of America; caused by the newly-created sea floor crusts oozing and pushing ever outwards, first as liquid lava then solidifying into rocks. No wonder the guy who first proposed this idea was thought to be on something?!!

The Pacific sea floor, once made and once it has travelled as far under the sea as to reach the American west coasts; over a matter of perhaps tens of millions of years? – this sea floor being made wholly of lava from earth’s core and so being made of  the heavier rock on which continents float; its naturally slides underneath the West Coast Continental rocks and gets drawn back down into the molten parts of the inner earth – this going downwards is a process called subduction – a drawing under. The sea floor as it is drawn under the land mass it naturally tears away a certain amount of the continental rock as it goes down.

This continental rock also melts when drawn down and with sometimes some subducted sea bed is in places forced up by the immense pressures below and within the earth; and so thus in The Andes the molten rocks are erupted from volcanoes and in the North Mount St Helens blows its top off now and then.  These molten lavas are to be the added continental rocks and so increase the mass of the American continents

The pressures generated below in the earth also help form the mountains of The Rockies and The Andes; and by the sea floor and accompanying parts of continental rocks being subducted they are adding amounts of materials beneath the American continent thereabouts; so that the land surface rises accordingly in proportion so as to bring the forces of pressure below into a closer equilibrium with the lighter weight they are sustaining. Just like when a rubber ring at the beach is inflated it rises higher out of the water; the air is equivalent to the subducted materials building underneath and the rising of the ring is cause by the ring responding accordingly to rectify an imbalance of pressures due to the pumping of it full of air.

Continents are created, moved around the globe, and are made larger by this series of events; and the whole series of events is called Continental Drift and Plate Tectonics. None of it would be possible and would not happen without the earth having a source of heat to drive its mighty engines or to the feed the hungry organism which performs these tasks. This fuel, this heat, this food, is potassium; and the radiation given off by potassium generates the heat in the rocks beneath us.

Without such a source of heat the earth would be cold to the core and solid; and its rocks unable to move around.  This would mean that life as we have it on earth now, carbon based and driven by oxygen and nitrogen and their reactions producing heat and energy; this life would not exist, not be able to exist. Potassium plays its part here; it is an essential ingredient in the way the earth works; and it is the way the earth works which allows life as we have it to flourish and multiply. Indirectly then potassium in this regard is again an essential for life; just as it is in our diets.

The point here being made is that the earth, the known universe and all things we know about are very preciously and intricately interwoven in their workings and in their dependencies; in such ways that often just one ingredient, which might be thought minor or insignificant, not being available would cause catastrophic failure of the whole of the macro systems which uphold our being.  Such an ingredient is potassium.  There are hosts of others.

Water freezing at 0 degrees Celsius and in its freezing expanding in volume unlike nearly all other substances when reduced from liquid to solid; these characteristics of water are vital to the way things are for us on earth; and without these things occurring in the substance water,  life would not be possible as it now is.

The gradations of weights of gases which make up the earth’s atmosphere; so that the lighter gases are floated on top of the heavier gases in it; make it possible that we are able to be protected from most of the harmful radiations emitted from the sun.  By ‘good fortune’ the gases which help shield us so well are the lighter gases; so that the radiation is cut out, absorbed, and reflected back by them before it penetrates to the breathable atmosphere below the lighter gases and where we are.

I don’t want to keep giving examples – I’m not a scientist.  The upshot appears to be that the earth and other parts of the universe behave in ways in which organisms behave; and so that ideas like Gaia have merit and credibility as a way of seeing the more accurately how the earth etc works, shows well its modus operandi, and how it continues in being in ways which are necessary to our lives.

It is said by some Classicists that the Greek philosopher Aristotle was not absolutely sure whether plants were living things. This came as a surprise to me; that someone might question whether a tree or a flower is alive.  We today take it almost a priori that plants are living things; so who can say that in the future maybe humans will have come to a similar conclusion about us as we have about Aristotle; in regard to our given and almost second nature attitude to the earth and to what we very blandly term its ‘inanimate nature’?

Without doubt there are things yet to be learned; to be mistaken for what they are not, to be rediscovered, to shake our beliefs to their foundations.  Despite all this half-knowledge we have of our earthly home and of the natural world in general across space also; there remains one ‘Feste Berg’ upon which we are told in the gospels a wise man builds his house..  As the writer of The Letter to the Hebrews tells us, in one of the most memorable phrases in all of Scripture, the Lord ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever’. He is the essence, the quintessence, the absolute, of all essential ingredients. ‘By his hand the heavens continue in place’ ‘Creator, sustainer, preserver.’  Indeed. Indeed.

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