Chapter 13: Madcap Laughs (excerpt from my upcoming novel, The Silver Year)

Good news! I’m on the final leg of my second draft and my book should finally be out in spring to early summer of next year! Until then, I’ve decided to tease you with another chapter. If you haven’t read the book’s synopsis you can find it here. Enjoy!

Chapter 13

Madcap Laughs

Each palpitation of bass pushed Walter farther away from himself. But really, who is myself? the quivering voice inside his head asked. I’m thousands of miles away from any type of familiarity. I don’t know these people, their language, this country, this city, or even what type or how many drugs I’m on. I don’t even know how I got here. I do know one thing though: I hate this music . . . Am I at a rave?

Electronic dance music chomped with the precision of pneumatic machinery, slicing the air around him into rhythmical bouillon cubes of music and noise. Blacklit glowsticks and the smell of Vicks VapoRub pulverized the dark as glistening skin pumped and thumped around him in an orgy of neon movement. What beautiful oddity allured me to this strange plane of existence and time this time? He soon found his answer in the half-naked body thrusting her bountiful buttocks upon his hips.

Wally, Walter’s inner frat boy and drunk persona, had a tendency to “go exploring” when Walter was blacked out and this was a fatal flaw in a city so bipolar as Amsterdam. In the sobriety of day she was a serene Dutch beauty, but in the inebriation of night, she was a shape-shifting she-devil, and not the place you wanted to come to in not knowing where you were, how you got there, or where your friends went.

Hello Planet Amsterdam! Walter thought to himself in a comical, Buzz-Lightyear-like voice, desperately reaching for some former plane of euphoria he had since fallen off of. I am Walter Huxley, and I come in strange, just like you! Please accept me as one of your own. Tracers of light began to freeze in rejection; faces within his vicinity began to change and unhinge. Walter swallowed in fear as he suddenly felt himself falling.

Walter had hung his feet over the edge of sanity before, but tonight it felt as if he’d made a running leap and was now cannonballing down the mineshaft of his mind. How far above reality was and what lay below he was unsure, however, if he could find a tether, perhaps he could still save himself. He just needed to find out when and where reality escaped him.

I am Walter Huxley—for the most part, I am Walter Huxley, he started with what he could last remember to be true. I am in Amsterdam. I came here on a Contiki trip… And that was all memory could give him for now.

FUUUUCK! his thoughts groaned as thunderclouds of panic grew. Well, this is a new and frightening high. I’m not even sure if I’m really alive. This feels like a dream . . . Well, I think you did it Walter. Whatever you took it’s killed you, or put you in a coma, or somewhere in between, but whatever this is, it isn’t real life . . . But then what is it?

Okay Walter, get a grip! Calm down! We can handle this. WE can handle this . . . We just need some quiet right now. We need to find a restroom. Not only because we suddenly really need to pee, but this orchestration of strobing lights and merciless EDM is fucking our psyche with the grace of a jackhammer right now. Once we’re there, we’ll get a good look over in the mirror to reaffirm our—I mean my existence, and that will bring we—I mean, me—back to reality . . . Fuck, I hope.  

Fog machines suddenly filled the dancefloor with a pulsating cloud of color and disorientation as if the dream was fighting back, not wanting Walter to leave. As the music began a crescendo, he felt as if the ground was lifting, and if he were to leave, he’d fall to his death.

Doooo you know where the bathroom izzzzz?” he yelled to the girl he was dancing with—or more or less humping. Inside his head, his voice sounded like it was being run through a pitch-shifter. The music was so deafening it was not only affecting Walter’s hearing, but blurring his vision from the reverberations of his skull. Certainty’s outlines kept going in and out of focus. She yelled something back, whether it was English or not was unclear. “The baaathrooooom—the pisser, water closet. Où est le toilet?! El baaanooo!

She shrugged her shoulders and turned around, waiting to be humped into again. He turned her back, and shouted: “Is there a proper place to urinate, or shall I just go on this dancefloooooor?!”

At this point he was no longer asking to be answered, just needing somewhere to aim his frustration. Punch drunk and certain he was in a lucid dream, he unzipped his pants and exposed himself to the girl in a challenge to reality. “Wheeere do I take this guyyyy?” The girl screamed and everyone turned to see the freakshow unraveling in the middle of the dancefloor. Before Walter could start relieving himself though, two hefty and very real security guards hauled him out of the cloud and onto the cobbled streets of the Red Light District. “Thank yooooou!” he yelled as they sloppily tossed him to the ground.

The industrial stomp of the nightclub soon receded into sounds of urban nightlife as Walter’s mind calmed for the time being. Okay, so I’m still in reality, he thought. I still am in Amsterdam . . . God, I need to take a piss. He then remembered a green, spiral-shaped public urinal he’d pissed in earlier on his way to…

The sex show! the memory slowly climbed out of the abyss. My tour group and I went to a sex show . . . I ate a banana . . . I ate a banana out of a girl’s vagina. I was pulled onstage and ate a banana out of one of the performer’s vagina . . . Okay, nope. I excitedly volunteered myself to eat the banana. The memory flow ceased. Well, maybe I’ll be able to remember more once all this fluid is out of me, he thought, and set out in search of another city urinal.

The air was cool as it hit Walter’s lungs. The roads had been polished by a recent rainstorm and were gleaming and menacing as the District’s red lights echoed off them. This red-tinged reality, however, soon began to rattle his bearings again, and again the drugs took advantage of his loosening grip. Chemical demon upon chemical demon stuffed itself into his neural network until his head exploded open, and a vivid flood of animated insanity was spilt upon the world. Voices cooed and cackled at him from every corridor, passersby twisted and stretched in hellish facial contortions, while the streets burned in a fire of blood. The monsters of paranoia were encircling Walter and there was nothing to do but surrender or run.

Walter chose the latter, his feet setting a frenetic pace as they bounced down the alleyways like a pinball off the rubbery walls of his imagination. The faster he moved, the less time his senses had to play tricks on him. Anywhere else this public display of lunacy would have attracted notice, however everyone was too busy managing their own demons of the Red Light District to worry about his. He was just one among many madcaps out of their minds—or in his case, trapped within it.

Fortuitously, Walter struck upon a urinal while zigzagging through the city with no other strategy than folly madness. Shelter! he thought as he cuddled against his piss-stained savior. Surrounded by only green steel and darkness, the malicious animations of his mind had little to work with. The urinal was nothing more than a spiraled shade around a hole in the ground. The confined space was easier for him to comprehend, and his neurons began to cool after being set ablaze from the friction of so many over-firing synapses.

He rested his head against the wall and looked up into the misty sky, waiting until his heartrate and breathing regulated before finally discharging himself. The piss felt as good as an escaping possession and stirred up a foul odor of stale urine, vomit, and spoiled milk. Now within reach of composure, he had everything he needed but a recognizable face. He needed the stability of someone familiar to reassure himself that he had found the way out of the maze of his mind. But in the solitude of his spiraled bunker, the only face familiar to him was his own.

As expected, the urinal had no mirror. Walter dug through his pockets and found his otherwise useless cellphone. He couldn’t make a call, but it did have a camera. He turned the front-facing camera on, but was only greeted by a black screen. He pressed the screen and his face against the steel walls, hoping to catch some reflecting rays, but it was far too dark. He then resolved to using his phone’s primary camera which had a flash, but his eyes and mind were in a tenuous state, still regaining normal function. Using it came with the risk of being sent back into a lunatic fit. So with eyes closed, he pointed the camera carefully at himself as if it were a loaded gun. The flash then exploded and an imaginary force of voltaic monsters came rushing in under his eyelids. Reactionarily, he threw the phone in fear, and after several seconds of blindness, a sad image slowly faded into view. There, in a pool of public excrement, lay his phone like his spirit: shattered. He squatted down and picked up the splintered device and its assorted pieces. He pressed the power button with both thumbs as if choking it, but to no avail. Unable to confirm himself, he gradually dissipated into the ether, left to swim again with his chemical demons.

As catcalls oozed over the grates from above, Walter cowered over fetally onto the floor. His body writhed as he held his hands to his face and cried. There was nothing to do but cry, cry with the intensity of a discarded newborn. His tears, however, unfortunately soon loosened the film of filth from the floor that had accumulated on his palms, and soon his eyes were invaded with the passion of an army of fire ants, leaving Walter in a deserted, burning blindness. But sight wasn’t the last of his senses to leave him. Slowly, he retreated from any bodily sensation until there was nothing left but thought, then only one thought: This must be what death feels like. It bounded down the halls of his empty consciousness until it was nothing but a whisper, then finally, dense silence.

Undisturbed of the outside world, Walter was left to wander within himself in search of any trace of himself; any proof that he had ever existed. An ember of life began to flicker. It was the oldest memory he could revive from the database of his existence. A young woman was humming, the light hush of her breathing and the slow rhythmic pulse of her heart pressed against his ear. There was no sight, only sound. Walter was in his mother’s womb.

For a lot of his life, Walter was made to feel unwanted. He entered into the world unwelcomed, and in some sense that sentiment never left him. But in his lonely foxhole, he found he was not actually alone. There was and always would be one person who saw worth in his existence, so much so she gave her life for it: his mother. Nothing could ever change that; he had and always would have his mother’s love.

Soon her heartbeat became all Walter could hear, and it beat with the fury of a war drum until his outside tormentors withdrew. Slowly, corporeality returned to his soggy, corduroy bellbottoms, rinsed in a marinade of rainwater, piss, and the other unknown elements Walter shared the floor with. He picked up his cellphone again and spoke into it as if it were still operable.

“Hi Mom,” he said out loud. Mom: he wasn’t sure if he had ever even said the word. “Even though I’ve only met you in pictures and Grandma’s stories, I want you to know you are still very much a part of my life—a part of me. No matter where I am, your love is and always has been with me. I guess somewhere along the way I forgot that. But however neglected it may be, when I need it the most, your love is always there to shush away my demons, and that is what I’m most grateful for Mommy. When the world tells me I don’t belong, you tell it I damn sure do . . . I don’t know the last time or if I ever told you this, but I love you Mom, and I’m sorry I don’t tell you that more often. I love you.”

Absolved, Walter sat up with a more peaceful mind. He then remembered—and then realized, there was a way out of this mess. He searched his jacket pockets and found a forgotten lighter he had bought earlier at a coffee shop with Curt and Kourtney—however, whatever else he bought there and what happened before and after was still a mystery. He took out the lighter and struck it in front of the glass shards left of his phone screen. There, fragmented but reflected in the flame, was the face he so needed to see: himself. Walter had returned to reality—sort of. He was still high as shit, but at least the monster was manageable now.

“I thought you came here for something new and revelating?” Walter’s familiar therapist inside his head spoke out loud. “Yet, I don’t think the bottom of a urinal is exactly what you had in mind, huh? But I suppose once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right, right? But still, you shouldn’t be wasting this trip in a goddamn urinal reflecting on your past. You should be outside of it creating a past worth reflecting on; inspiring a story that will hopefully keep you entertained for an eternity, because in the end, the story of your life may be all you have left to read.

“Now, as you know, I’m an advocate of moderate drug use, but you’re doing it all wrong. Traveling the world is a mind-altering experience itself, and additional intoxicants should be taken with extreme care—especially when you’re in a place you’ve never been before. Drugs can enhance the experience of life, but too much and you’ll destroy it altogether as you’re starting to do with this trip.

“But there’s hope for you Walter. I’m glad I found you when I did. You still have a chance to salvage your one night in one of the greatest cities in the world. Don’t blow it on account of a bad trip. We all have them. But that’s why it’s called a trip, you can always stand up…”

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Teaser for My Upcoming Novel, The Silver Year: A Great Adventure of the World & Mind

Four years, four months and four days ago, I began what was originally to be a memoir of my European trip and my quarter-life crisis year of 2012. However, over the years and 400 or so Word document pages later, “my little inside joke with myself”—as I lovingly refer to it now, has grown into something quite different and spectacular. Although I have probably a good three to six months of editing and post-production work left, I am elated to announce my book is finally finished! It feels surreal, for this project has been floating in the background of my life, occupying every spare hour I have, for so long. While it’s still not quite ready for public release, below is a link to a teaser for all of you who keep asking to read it. Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to enjoy a congratulatory beer with myself :-).

The Silver Year: A Great Adventure of the World & Mind

It had been Walter Huxley’s teenage dream to become a rock star and he sacrificed everything to make it come true: a promising future as a physicist, a well-paying job, a loving girlfriend, and even two people’s lives. But when one is born with the desire to brand his name on the world, he’ll destroy his own to do it. However what happens when you realize your dream was not your own, just an expectation of everyone around you? And even worse, you realize this just as you’ve made your dream a reality, a reality in which you now hate but can’t escape.

On his twenty-fifth birthday, this is where Walter finds himself, living in the shadow of a character of his own creation, his stage persona, Quinn Quark. Quark is a character everyone loves but Walter: a dark and enigmatic madman; a charismatic and self-destructive genius; an immensely talented songwriter with a pretty face and the budding hopes of a generation on his shoulders. Quark was the resurrection of popular culture’s most beloved and missed creature: the rock star.

After attempting to destroy Quark and abandon his teenage dream forever, Walter finds himself lost and in financial ruin, but surprisingly more famous than ever. Just as he’s on the verge of a mental breakdown—all in view of the public eye, he becomes the unexpected recipient of a birthday gift from a long-forgotten friend, an all-expenses-paid trip to Europe. At first reluctant, he only goes as a means to escape his newfound fame in America, but in the process of traveling through eight countries, Walter meets a number of characters—in and outside his head—whom will alter his life forever.

The Silver Year is not only a journey of the world, but of the ubiquitous transition into adulthood known as “the quarter-life crisis” through the messy mind of a genius—or madman. Really, it’s up to you to decide the difference.

 

What Science Would Be Without Religion

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By Bradley Stockwell

A few years ago if you were to have asked me whether or not religious institutions have impeded the progress of science, I would have given a vehement ‘hell yes’. I would’ve given the accounts of Giordano Bruno, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, Copernicus, and the many others who risked or gave their lives in the name of science as examples. However over the years I’ve learned that making such a blanket statement is rather prejudiced. This is not to say there hasn’t been significant efforts by religious institutions to repress science, but also without them, most of the principles and methodologies of modern science and medicine would’ve never been established.

The Roman Catholic Church was vital in the development of systematic nursing and hospitals, and even still today the Church remains the single greatest private provider of medical care and research facilities in the world. The Church also founded Europe’s first universities and Medieval Catholic mathematicians and philosophers such as John Buridan, Nicole Oresme and Roger Bacon are considered the fathers of modern science. Furthermore, after the Fall of Rome, monasteries and convents became strongholds of academia, preserving the works of Euclid, Ptolemy, Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Simplicius and many more. Clergymen were the leading scholars of the day, studying nature, mathematics and the motion of stars. And while some may blame Christianity for the Fall of Rome and decline of intellectual culture during the Middle Ages, this claim is unjustified and is a much more complex issue probably better reserved for a history class. Additionally, many forget that while the western half of the Roman Empire collapsed, the much more Christianized eastern half remained relatively strong and continued into the 15th century as the Byzantine Empire.

Not to focus solely on Christianity, Islam also had a part in the preservation and flourishing of science. An Arab Muslim named Ibn al-Haytham, considered to be one the first theoretical physicists, made significant contributions in the fields of optics, astronomy and mathematics, and was an early advocate that a hypothesis must be proved by experiments based on confirmable procedures or mathematical evidence—essentially the scientific method. Caliphs during the Islamic Golden Age established research institutes, sent emissaries around the world in search of books, then funded projects to translate, study and preserved them. Much of the Ancient Greek science we have today would have been lost and the European Renaissance hundreds of years after would not have been possible without their efforts. Also, at one time arguably, Arabic was the language of science. The “al’s” in algebra, algorithm, alchemy and alcohol are just some of the remnants.

The Islamic world also imported ideas from Hindus, which includes the Arabic numerals we still use today and the concept of zero. Also, as mentioned in a previous post, The Spirituality of Science, I see many parallels between science and Dharmic beliefs, such as reincarnation and entropy: the universe is cyclical; life and death are just different stopping points on a grand recycling process; matter, like the body, is created and recycled, while energy, like the soul, is immortal and transferred. The correlation I find most fascinating though is the Hindu concept of Brahman to the laws of thermodynamics. According to belief, Brahman is the source of all things in the universe including reality and existence; everything comes from Brahman and everything returns to Brahman; Brahman is uncreated, external, infinite and all-embracing. You could substitute the word energy for Brahman and get a simple understanding of the applications of the first and second laws of thermodynamics. It’s funny how the world’s oldest religion, Hinduism, seemed to grasp these concepts thousands of years before science did.

In conclusion, although it’s still hard for me to look past some of the civil atrocities wrought by religious institutions—in particular when they’ve been intimately tied to a governing body, I think when you tally up the scores, science has benefited greatly from religion and any impediments are heavily outweighed. In a day when it seems popular to present everything in a dichotomous fashion—either you’re with or against us, I think it’s important to remember that for the most part, we all have what’s best in mind for humanity, and it’s when we work together that the best results are produced. Until next time, stay curious my friends.

 

How Old Are You?: How The Atomic Age Solved One of Biology’s Greatest Mysteries

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By Bradley Stockwell

My two favorite arenas of academia are science and history, and the more I study the two, the more I see how interwoven they really are. There’s no greater example of this than something called the “bomb pulse”. Whether you know it or not, lurking inside of you is a piece of Cold War history—even if you weren’t alive at the time—and it is this little memento that finally solved one of biology’s most elusive secrets: How old are you? And I don’t mean how many times has the cellular clump of mass known as you swung around the sun, but how old are the individual cells that make up that mass? Your skin cells, heart cells, neurons—your body is constantly renewing itself with new cells and it is only as of 2002 that we began to have a definitive answer for how old each one was. With this post, my intentions are twofold. One: I want to tell you about one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 21st century, and two: I’m hoping that by wrapping them in this titillating story, I can also slip in a few basic principles of nuclear chemistry. With that said, let’s begin!

Between 1945 and 1963, over four hundred nuclear bombs were detonated, unleashing an untold number of extra neutrons into the atmosphere. Some of these neutrons found their way into nitrogen atoms, causing them to eject a proton. If you’re familiar with some basic chemistry, when a seven-proton nitrogen atom loses a proton, it becomes a six-proton carbon atom. However, because these carbon atoms still have two extra neutrons from when they were nitrogen, they become something called an isotope, a variant of an element which differs in neutrons, but has the same amount of protons. In this case, these slightly more massive and radioactive isotopes become an isotope of carbon called carbon-14.

When I say radioactive, all I mean is that the atom’s nucleus is unstable; that it is emitting energy in the form of ejected subatomic particles or energetic light waves to stabilize itself until it becomes a stable isotope, or a completely new element altogether. This radioactive decay comes in three main forms: alpha, beta and gamma. Alpha decay—which only happens with heavy elements like uranium—is the ejection of something physicists call an alpha particle, but chemists just call it a helium atom, a bundle of two protons and two neutrons. In fact, almost all the helium here on Earth came from this type of decay. Think about that the next time your sucking down a helium balloon; you’re inhaling the atomic leftovers of uranium, thorium and other heavy, radioactive elements. Beta minus decay is the ejection of an electron and beta plus decay is the ejection of the electron’s antiparticle, the positron. Gamma decay is the emission of an extremely energetic light wave called a gamma ray and it is often emitted in conjunction with alpha and beta decay.

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The time it can take for a radioactive element to reach a stable form can be anywhere from instantaneous to far longer than the age of the universe. Because individual atoms decay unpredictably, the way in which we measure this loss is through probability, or something called a half-life. This is the time it takes for half a quantity of radioactive material to decay into a more stable form. This is not to say if you have four radioactive atoms, in x amount of time you’ll have two necessarily, but more that each individual radioactive atom has a fifty percent chance that it will decay to a more stable form in x amount of time. For example, carbon-14, the star of our story, has a half-life of 5,730 years. This means if you had a pound of it, after 5,730 years you’d have a half pound of carbon-14 and half a pound of nitrogen-14, carbon-14’s more stable form. Then after another 5,730 years you’d have a quarter pound of carbon-14 and three-quarters pound of nitrogen-14, and so forth. This is how carbon dating works; by measuring the relative portions of carbon-12 and carbon-14 in a sample of organic matter, archeologists are able to determine its age.

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The period between 1945 and 1963 in which all this atomic testing was happening is now called the “bomb pulse” by the scientific community. It was called this because the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere was doubled during this period from all those free neutrons crashing into nitrogen. In 1963, when the Soviet Union, the U.K. and the U.S. agreed to the Limited Test Ban Treaty which prohibited all above-ground detonations, the amount of carbon-14 began to decrease by half every eleven years and will eventually be depleted somewhere around 2030 to 2050. This isn’t because the carbon-14 is decaying into nitrogen-14 (remember the half-life of carbon-14 is 5,730 years), but because it is being absorbed by the life inhabiting our planet, which includes us. Although carbon-14 is an altered carbon atom—a carbon isotope, it still behaves like a carbon atom because it is the number of protons in an atom that determines its chemical behavior, while the number of neutrons determines its mass; and like a regular carbon atom, these carbon-14 atoms have been binding to oxygen, forming CO2, which is sucked up by plants during photosynthesis and then fed to the rest of us through the food chain. Like the plants, our bodies too can’t tell the difference between carbon and carbon-14, so for the last seventy-plus years all this extra carbon-14 has been used by every living creature to build new cells, proteins and DNA.

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While our bodies can’t tell the difference between carbon and carbon-14 (because they have the same amount of protons), scientists can because of their slight difference in mass (remember carbon-14 has two extra neutrons). The difference in mass is measureable through a technique called mass spectrometry, which sorts atoms by weight. Without getting too technical, an instrument called a mass spectrometer strips atoms of some of their electrons and launches them into a magnetic field, which alters the atoms’ course, and because of inertia, heavier atoms take a wider path than lighter ones. By measuring how many atoms travel along certain paths, scientists can determine how much of a specific atom—in this case a carbon-14 atom—is in a sample.

So what does this have to do with determining a cell’s age? Well for a long time nothing. But somewhere around 2002, Krista Spalding, a postdoc at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, wanted to challenge the longtime doctrine that said the human brain couldn’t create any new neurons after the age of four. There had been growing evidence that the adult hippocampus—a seahorse-shaped region deep in the brain that is important for memory and learning—could regenerate neurons, but no one knew for sure. Spalding and her postdoc advisor, Jonas Frisén, had a hunch that the “bomb pulse” period could somehow offer a solution and it did, culminating in a paper by Spalding, Frisén and their team published in June 2013, which conclusively found that the hippocampus did produce approximately 700 to 1,400 new neurons per day, and these neurons last twenty to thirty years. How you ask? Well there’s an episode of Radiolab (a wonderful science podcast I recommend you all listen to) that has a much more colorful version of Spalding and Frisén’s journey here, but because I know I’m probably already pushing your attention spans, I’ll just give a brief overview. You see, atmospheric scientists have been measuring the amount of carbon-14 and other elements in the atmosphere every two weeks since the late 1950s, giving us an extremely accurate timetable of how much carbon-14 is and was in the atmosphere at any given time after. By correlating this data to the amount of carbon-14 found in a cell’s DNA (while other molecules are regularly refreshed throughout a cell’s life, DNA remains constant), researchers can determine not just the age of a hippocampal neuron, but any cell. So by accident, the nuclear age finally shed light on when tissues form, how long they last and how quickly they’re replaced.

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You—and every other living organism—are continually creating new cells. Cells that make up your skin, hair and the lining of your gut are constantly being replaced, while others, like cells that make up the lens of your eye, the muscles of your heart and the neurons of the cerebral cortex, have been with you since birth and will stay with you until you die.

So why is this so important? Well firstly, it gives us a key insight into the mechanisms behind many neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and many more. Really we’ve only just begun to dig into this Pandora’s box so to speak, and unfortunately time is limited (well unless we start blowing up a bunch of atomic weapons again, but let’s hope humanity has moved past this) because, as I said, this measureable spike of carbon-14 in our atmosphere from the “bomb pulse” will eventually be depleted somewhere between 2030 and 2050.

Despite what the “bomb pulse” is and will offer to scientific research, isn’t it cool just knowing which cells have been at the party of you the longest? Or that like the rings of a tree, or the sedimentary layers of rock, our bodies too tell the story of our times? With that, until next time, stay curious my friends.

 

 

How Pencil Lead and Sticky Tape Won a Nobel Prize

 

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By Bradley Stockwell

First off, I want to apologize to all of my six followers to this blog. I know I left you in anxious anticipation over my follow-up post to Climate Change Part I on future green technologies. However, after three months of procrastination, I confess I still haven’t written it. I’m sorry, but I’m easily distracted and while attempting to assemble it I came across a story too good not to tell about a fascinating material called graphene. Graphene is the thinnest, strongest and stiffest material on Earth; it conducts electricity and heat better than any other known material; it is transparent and two-dimensional and is the basis for all future technologies and A.I. At the moment, its potential of applications looks limitless. Oh did I mention it was discovered with nothing more than pencil lead and tape? They even gave the guys who discovered it the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics. Shit, if I knew it was that easy I could’ve scratched Nobel prize in physics off the bucket list a long time ago.

So what is graphene exactly then? In short, it’s a sheet of pencil lead (graphite) an atom thick. But to understand how we arrived at the discovery of graphene, we need to tell another story, the story of carbon. Graphene is an allotrope of carbon which simply means it’s one possible way to structure carbon atoms. The carbon atom has six protons and typically six neutrons in its nucleus. Sometimes the nucleus has eight neutrons, in which case the carbon atom is known as carbon-14. Carbon-14 is unstable, meaning it radioactively decays, but the decay is consistent over long periods of time. Because this form of carbon is found in many materials, measuring its presence gives us a way to age materials—or what is known as carbon dating. Carbon-14 however is not an allotrope of carbon, it is what is known as an isotope, something covered in detail in a previous post, Flight of the Timeless Photon.

Allotrope formation is dependent on the electrons of a carbon atom and the way in which they bond to other carbon electrons. Carbon has six electrons, two of which are buried in its innermost shell near the nucleus, and four in its outermost shell which are called valence electrons. It is these four outermost electrons—and a ton of heat and pressure—that make the difference between a lump of coal and a diamond, another allotrope of carbon. In diamond, a carbon atom’s four valence electrons are bonded with four other carbon valence electrons. This produces an extremely stiff crystalline structure. In fact, a typical diamond is made up of about a million billion billion atoms (1 with 24 zeros after it) all perfectly arranged into a single pyramidal structure, which is key to its extraordinary strength. But diamond is not the strongest and most stable allotrope of carbon. Although DeBeers may want you to think otherwise, a diamond is not forever; every diamond in existence is actually slowly turning into graphite. The process however takes billions of years so no need to worry about your wedding ring just yet.

Graphite is not a crystalline structure like diamond, but planes of carbon atoms connected in a hexagonal pattern, with each plane having an extremely strong and stable structure—stronger and more stable than diamond. Some of you may be asking, is this not the same graphite we write with and grind up into fine powder lubricants? Yes indeed it is, and the conundrum of descriptives can be blamed on electrons. In diamond, a carbon atom shares its four valence electrons with four other carbon atoms, whereas in graphite it shares its electrons with only three (see graphic below). This results in graphite having no electrons left over to form strong bonds between layers, leaving it up to something called van der Waals forces, a weak set of forces generated by fluctuations in a molecular electric field. Basically it’s the universal glue of matter and is something all molecules naturally possess. Because these forces are so weak is why you’re able to write with graphite—a.k.a. pencil lead. As you press your pencil to paper, you’re breaking the van der Waals forces, allowing layers of graphite to slide across one another and deposit themselves on a page. If it weren’t for the weak van der Waals bonds, pencil lead would be stronger than diamond and this is behind the advent of carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is spun graphite, lathered in an epoxy glue to overcome the weak van der Waals forces. Restriction of van der Waals forces is also behind the phenomenality of graphene.

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Since graphene is a single layer of graphite one atom thick, there is no need to worry about weak van der Waals forces. By default this makes graphene the strongest and thinnest material known to man. Also, because its carbon atoms are not structured in a crystalline lattice like diamond, which leaves no free electrons, it also conducts electricity and heat better than any known material. This means because of its transparency and thinness, we could literally add touch sensitivity to any inanimate object and possibly entire buildings. It also allows for something called Klein tunneling, which is an exotic quantum effect in which electrons can tunnel through something as if it’s not there. Basically it means it has the potential to be an electronic dynamo and may someday replace silicon chips and pave the way for quantum computing. Graphene was purely hypothetical until 2004 when Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov discovered it. As stated in the title of this post, they discovered it with nothing more than a lump of graphite and sticky tape. They placed the tape on the graphite and peeled off a layer. They then took another piece of tape and stuck it to the piece of tape with the graphite layer and halved the layer. They continued to do this until they were left with a layer of graphite one atom thick. I’m not exaggerating the simplicity of the procedure in any way. Watch the video below and you can replicate the experiment yourself, the only catch is you need an electron microscope to confirm you indeed created graphene. Until next time my friends, stay curious.

Climate Change Part I: Where It Went Wrong & Why It’s Stupid to Still Deny It

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By Bradley Stockwell

1878 World’s Fair: Augustin Mouchot’s solar-powered motor is a gold medal winner and initially receives generous government funding for development. However the funding is soon cut due to a dramatic decrease in the cost of coal production.

1900 World’s Fair: Commissioned by the French government, the Otto company displays the recently invented diesel engine running on peanut oil without any modification to the original design. The inventor of the engine, Rudolf Diesel, learns of this and becomes a leading proponent for the development of biodiesel fuels to spur agricultural development. However after his death in 1913 and with the emerging petroleum market on the rise, the motor is redesigned to run solely on petroleum diesel fuel.

The Egyptian desert 1913: Frank Shuman, the inventor of safety glass, presents a solar power plant which promises to make solar energy—a limitless, renewable energy source—more cost-efficient than coal. He too receives generous accolades and funding from the German and British governments, but ultimately with the outbreak of World War I shortly thereafter, funding is cut and put into the exploding petroleum market, leaving Shuman’s solar collectors to be recycled into weapons.

Detroit, Michigan 1908: Henry Ford’s first Model T rolls off the assembly line and it runs on gasoline and/or corn ethanol. Ford envisions one day however that all vehicles will run solely on agricultural fuel sources. One of particular interest to him is hemp. In 1941 he even constructs a lightweight car that runs on hemp biofuel and is constructed with plastic panels made partially of hemp. Nevertheless the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937—backed by the petrochemical company DuPont—would eventually kill the domestic hemp industry and with the onset of World War II, gasoline engine technology would only see further dominance.

Now that we’re facing down the barrel of a global climate crisis, it’s easy to look back and see where it might have been averted. It’s not like we weren’t warned; as far back as 1896 (read here) the scientific community has cautioned us about the consequences of a fossil-fueled civilization. But humanity’s myopic view of the future has not only undercut our ingenuity, but it now endangers the survival of our species—and many others I may add. However there’s hope and I’d like to pay tribute to this hope by highlighting today and tomorrow’s most innovative and coolest technologies on the frontline in the fight against climate change. But first…

THE PROOF:

Believe it or not, our planet breathes. In the spring, the forests of the Northern Hemisphere inhale carbon dioxide to grow and the amount of CO2 in the air decreases while the amount of oxygen (O2) increases. Then in the fall, when leaves fall and decay, that CO2 is released back into the atmosphere. This same respiratory cycle happens in the Southern Hemisphere, but there is far more ocean than forest in the South. This has been happening for tens of millions of years, but wasn’t noticed until 1958 when the oceanographer Charles David Keeling devised a way to accurately measure the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. However this discovery also unearthed quite a big elephant in the room for humanity: climate change.

You see, CO2 in our atmosphere acts as an insulator for heat sent here from the sun. Without it, our planet would be a frozen wasteland and with too much of it, it’d be hell on earth and the difference between the two is not much—six molecules of CO2 per ten thousand to be exact. Since the formation of the earth, volcanoes have been spewing CO2 into the air. Then water and life came along and the CO2 was absorbed into the oceans and harvested into more organic matter. Over the course of millions of years, this bled our atmosphere of CO2 (which is a good thing when you’re cultivating life) until CO2 comprised just three-hundredths of a percent of our atmosphere—three molecules per ten thousand. And for at least the last 800,000 years this percentage has stayed relatively the same until the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Hmm… anybody see a strange correlation? We know this because we’ve drilled into glaciers and extracted and measured trapped air from that long ago. Since about the turn of the century, CO2 levels have risen a staggering 40%. And as of January 2015, we’ve officially added another molecule of CO2 per ten thousand—four per ten thousand in total—in the span of about 100 years. Earth hasn’t seen CO2 levels this high in over three million years, when horses and camels roamed the high arctic and sea levels were at least 30 feet higher; a level that would drown many major cities today.

While one more molecule per ten thousand may not sound like much, remember the difference between frozen wasteland and hell on earth is only six molecules per ten thousand and life providing oasis sits delicately in the middle at three. And it’s not like the earth is just naturally dumping all this additional CO2 into the air. We know it’s man-made because CO2 created from the burning of fossil fuels is slightly lighter than that of say volcanic CO2.

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This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. (Credit: Vostok ice core data/J.R. Petit et al.; NOAA Mauna Loa CO2 record.)

The strongest force driving climate change is us. It’s undeniable and those who deny it in my opinion are just too scared to admit it. And it is scary. It’s not like we can keep going along like this and still have another 200 years before we add two more CO2 molecules per ten thousand to the atmosphere. We’ve already set off a chain reaction of sorts. Because temperatures are rising, ground that’s been frozen for a millennia is now beginning to thaw. That ground is densely packed with organic matter and the thawing of that organic matter is releasing more CO2 into the air, causing the temperature to rise even higher and thaw ground even quicker. This positive feedback loop is also happening with the melting of sea ice. As ocean temperatures rise, more sea ice melts and more heat is absorbed into the oceans instead of being reflected back into space, which causes ocean temperatures to rise faster which in turn melts the ice faster. Not only are we contributing heavily to climate change, but now we’ve triggered Mother Earth to follow suit.

But as I stated previously there is hope. We haven’t reached the “point of no return”—the point at which no amount of effort will save us from catastrophic global warming—yet. That point is at 4.5 molecules per ten thousand, so we are damn close. If we continue at our current rate, which is adding two more CO2 molecules per million per year, we’ll reach the “point of no return” somewhere around 2042. But I have faith in humans; faith that we’re too smart and too adaptive to let that happen. After all, we come from a long pedigree of very successful survivors, so let’s put it to use. If not for the sake of saving the world, at least for the sake of technological progression. We know fossil fuels won’t last forever so why not start solving that problem now? Also wouldn’t it be cool if we had concrete that healed itself and roads that talked to us while collecting solar energy? This is just a preview of some of the green technologies and innovations on the horizon that I’ll cover in part two of this series. Until then, stay curious my friends.

Why Drive-Thru Attendant is The Proudest Position I’ve Ever Held

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By Bradley Stockwell

The further I progress in my adult life, the more I realize what an important role my first job had in building the foundation of it. Let’s be honest, working as a fast food drive-thru attendant just plainly sucks. It’s extremely stressful and degrading; you make minimum wage, have some horrible bosses and you go home every day smelling like greasy meat. I had everything from insults to water balloons to milkshakes to sex toys thrown at me (yes for some reason people love playing practical jokes on drive-thru attendants). I witnessed physical altercations—was even involved in one myself, auto accidents, arrests and people performing sex acts while I handed them their food (completely separate from the sex toys incident). Yet despite all this, I am continually grateful for the preview the drive-thru gave me of the real world in all its ugly and fascinating glory.

Social Skills

Customer service is an obvious requirement of a drive-thru attendant. Since food is a universal need, the walks of life I came in contact with—and had to make happy—was quite expansive. Also if you get between hungry people and their food, be prepared to see some claws come out. To avoid—or if need be remedy—angry customers, I learned there was no one-size-fits-all approach. Everyone has their own individual ticks, stresses and personalities and to succeed in customer service you need to be an excellent reader of people. As a naïve 16-year-old boy who was raised in a nice suburban community, I wasn’t so good at this in the beginning. However by the end of my two-year tenure in fast food, there wasn’t a soccer mom, senior citizen, crackhead, or corporate businessman I couldn’t charm.

Communication

As the drive-thru attendant you’re sort of the quarterback of the team. Every part of the transaction runs through your hands from taking the order, collecting the money and handing the order off to the customer. All three of these things need to be double-checked for accuracy because if something goes wrong, all the blame comes back to the customer’s only point of contact—you. While much of this was dependent on me, the food—the most important part—depended on my kitchen staff. I found out early in my fast food career that having an open line of communication with them was crucial. For me this meant I had to learn some Spanish. Repeating orders out loud in Spanish to my kitchen staff increased the accuracy of them tenfold and I can’t tell you how many times knowing a little Spanish has come in handy later in life.

Teamwork and Leadership

Additionally, I also took interest in my kitchen staff’s job roles. While my initial motivation to get behind the grill and fryer was out of curiosity, it helped me realize some of the challenges and stresses they had to deal with day-to-day—such as getting burned constantly. I even let my kitchen staff take a few cracks at the headset to understand my job also. Although we preferred our own positions in the end, it built rapport between us. Understanding and respecting how each person contributes to the team’s success as a whole was an invaluable lesson that helped me succeed later in management. But most importantly, I found working with people who respect and have a positive relationship with each other can make even the worst job very enjoyable at times.

Stress & Time Management

To this day, it’s hard to put into words the stress I felt during a lunch, or dinner rush. The headset is constantly ringing with nagging customers, orders need to be bagged, drinks need to be made, customers need to be greeted at the window, and it only took one slip for the whole thing to fall into chaos. Along with the above mentioned duties, it was also my job to make sure bags, condiments and cups were stocked and the shake machine and ice bins were regularly cleaned and filled. If these things weren’t done before a rush or shift change it meant disaster. My fellow employees, and most importantly the customers, depended on me getting these tasks done, so I quickly learned not to procrastinate them; to instead get them done in small chunks throughout the day. To also ensure rushes ran as smoothly as possible, I memorized the totals with tax for almost every combo meal and the dollar menu up to ten items that way I could fill orders while taking new ones without having to be in front of an order screen.

Optimism

My most valuable lesson sort of happened by accident. Being a musician, I began treating rushes as performances just for the fun of it. Instead of focusing on how much my job sucked, I instead focused on how many people I could make smile or laugh. If the situation was appropriate, I sang to people over the intercom, did caricature voices and just really tried to be the most entertaining drive-thru attendant I could be. I learned that when I took pride in my job—no matter how menial it was, the day went by a lot faster and at times I didn’t even want to go home.