Saturday, May 28, 2016

Gender Neutral Restrooms Should Not Include "Urinals"

Let me say at the outset the following belief that I hold: I am not against gender restrooms.  Again: I am not against gender neutral restrooms!  I just want to make that point crystal clear.  I am writing this blog post with the intention of suggesting that all urinals be removed out of gender neutral restrooms in the future.  The idea comes as a result of two experiences along with an article (one of the many) concerning the growing litigation and debate surrounding transgender use of restrooms throughout the nation (USA).  Below are my initial thoughts ... I am always open to learning and debate.

What Are Gender Neutral Restrooms?

Up until a couple of weeks ago, I had not experienced using a gender neutral restroom.  That is besides the "gender neutral" restroom that is housed in my house.  We all forget that the restrooms inside of our houses are "gender neutral" to an extent (a large extent).  If you are married then, the argument is amplified.  Stay tuned for more on that thought.

In a recent article that appeared in the "New York Times" titled "Transgender Bathroom Debate Turns Personal At A Vermont High School" there was an excerpt that I identified with based on a recent experience.  Last week, I had a chance to use my first "gender neutral" restroom over on the campus of the Los Angeles Trade Technical College (in Los Angeles, California).  First, let me share the excerpt that caught my attention:

CHESTER, Vt. — The way A J Jackson tells it, he kept his head ducked down and pretended to fiddle with his cellphone as he walked into the boys’ bathroom and headed for a stall at Green Mountain Union High School here.

But the way some of his classmates see it, A J was still Autumn Jackson, a girl in boys’ clothing, who had violated an intimate sanctum, while two boys were standing at a urinal, their private parts exposed.

“It’s like me going into a girls’ bathroom wearing a wig,” Tanner Bischofberger, 15, a classmate of A J Jackson’s, who was not one of those in the bathroom, said this week. “It’s just weird.”

A complaint about Mr. Jackson’s using the boys’ bathroom set off a protest by students advocating the right of their transgender classmate to use the bathroom of his choice. On Thursday, the schools superintendent announced a new practice at the high school allowing transgender students to use the sex-specific bathroom of their choice, rather than being encouraged to use a gender-neutral bathroom. The announcement came a day before the Obama administration’s national directive was announced.

A month ago, I would have read this excerpt and thought differently than I did a couple of weeks ago.  The difference is due to my experience at a conference which involved using my first "gender neutral" restroom.   Here is the door to the restroom at the Los Angeles Technical Trade College:

Upon a closer inspection, I read the placard on the door as shown below:

When I walked into the restroom, I noticed the following configuration of urinals and stalls -- which surprised me:

This did not appear to be the proper configuration of a gender neutral restroom in my mind.  The reasons will be made known shortly.  I thought that the current configuration was strange.  I was  planning to use the urinal.  My first thought was "what if a lady comes into the restroom?"   I looked at the door and there was a lock on the door.  I thought using the lock would make the restroom safer, but would limit the total number of users at a given time.  I hurried up and used the urinal with a constant visual line toward the door.  After, I left immediately and went to the conference.

The experience was unusual and I can relate to the excerpts above.  Although, I do not really have an issue with the concept.  I do have an issue with the presence of urinals without any casing (stalls).  After sitting at the table for a while, a lady from another transportation department sat down at my table.  She had a similar experience from a different perspective.

Her experience with the same restroom was that upon entering the restroom shown above, two men (in their 60's) were using the urinals.  She waited patiently for the stall.  One of the men looked back at her and asked "why are you in here?"  She thought that the question was strange.  She felt uncomfortable.  Clearly, the planning behind this restroom was not properly executed.

Couple this to the old men having the stigma of gender based restrooms over the past few decades.  Removing the urinals might have changed this potential problem arising from this brief interaction.  The presence of the urinals introduces the "gender aspect" of the restroom.  At least, these are my initial thoughts on the matter.

Lately, in the news, there has been a large amount of controversy.  In a recent story by "NPR" titled "When A Transgender Person Uses A Restroom, Who Is At Risk?" the author interviewed different people who were both for and against the use of gender neutral restrooms.  Here is an excerpt that is of concern to me:

But those cases involve sexual predators who put on women's clothes and violated any number of previously existing laws. And conflating "transgender" with "predator" is something many find offensive.

"As a trans person ... it's hard not to take it personally when people are comparing trans people to child predators or saying that we're somehow dangerous," says Alison Gill, vice chair of the Trans United Fund.

Gill points out that not long ago, many people incorrectly thought gay men were pedophiles.

She says some people just don't understand that when it comes time for a transgender person to start using the other restroom, they'd rather do it privately, and with as little fuss as possible.

"The last thing you as a trans person would want to do is draw attention to yourself," Gill says.

 Just because a person uses the restroom that does not look the same as you -- gives you no right to harass or treat them differently.  I believe that the idea that people will dress up in the opposite sexes clothing to take advantage has little merit today.  If the urinals were removed from the restroom, then the identity of the person using the restroom would be unknown.

Why Urinals Need To Be Removed?

As I mentioned above, the presence of urinals in a "gender neutral" restroom indicates a discrimination of the occupants of the restroom.  Why? Because, a woman cannot walk into the restroom and use the urinal while a man is waiting to use the stall.  This was pointed out in the story above.  Why is this the case?  Lets look at the problem from the perspective of the male.

Below is a picture of the main reason for the removal of urinals in "gender neutral" restrooms:

Source: "Urinal Etiquette" -- Huffington Post

One of the mistakes the facility planners make when designing the layout of the men's restroom is to forget to install "dividers" between urinals.  These are metal boards which serve to separate each urinal.  This might sound trivial to most people.  If so, read the article that the above picture is sourced to on "urinal etiquette."

A common problem is shown in the above image of the two men using the restroom.  The man on the right in the above picture has turned and is zipping up his pants followed by buckling his belt.  This is considered a "no no" if there is no "urinal divider" or even if there is.

Why do men do this action?

The reason most likely resides around the fact that after flushing the urinal, the water is rushing down (due to pressure) to clean the urinal.  No body wants to get their pants wet during the process of zipping up their pants and fastening their belts.  Furthermore, the chance might of either garments or belts touching the inside of the urinal might be real -- depending how close the person is standing to the urinal.

See how complicated using a urinal is?

I bet you never put that much thought into the process.  This could be mitigated by simply removing the urinals in a restroom.  Furthermore, below is an example of a newly renovated restroom at a university which will never completely get used -- due to no urinal dividers:

Returning to the issue of gender neutral restrooms.

Gender Neutral Restrooms Are Nothing New?

You read correctly.  Gender neutral restrooms are not new in certain institutions.  For example, take the University of California at Berkeley -- freshmen dorms.  Below is a picture of the gender neutral dorm restrooms:

Furthermore, I found a little "gif" displaying the situation at the dorms.  Shown below are a male and a female student in the gender neutral restroom:


You can see the awkwardness of the student on the right.  Obviously, the video participants are exaggerating the situation of having to share the restroom.  This is a perfect example of the current situation being an old situation.  Nothing new.

Why is the issue circulating in the media?

Conclusion ...

After thinking about this post and writing, I have a few new thoughts on laws regarding restrooms.  A few months ago, I was asked to be a science judge for an elementary school.  The judging session took place at the end of the work day (in the evening when no children were present).  I had to use the restroom.  I asked the organizer where the restroom was.  She directed me down the hall.  I quickly entered the restroom and used a stall.  I had to really use the restroom.  I was sitting down and I heard the door open.  What happened next?

I saw a person entering the stall next to me.  That person had 'high heels' on.  Turned out, the men and women's restroom were right next to each other and the ladies instructed me to the women's rather than the men's -- naturally, they are women.  Wow.  I was surprised.  I have to admit, at first, I was confused and was embarrassed.

How did I find myself going "#2" in the women's restroom?  Oh my goodness.

I let the person next to me finish using the restroom, then I finished quickly and nervously to say the least.  I had to figure out how to escape the restroom quickly -- how was I going to explain this mistake?

One of my colleagues years ago said to me that the construct of "gender" was an idea -- nothing more than that.  O.K.  We are taught from a young age to use a "gender neutral" restroom with our sisters and brothers.  Gender is only introduced when we leave our house by society.  Of course, anatomy aside.  The presence of urinals introduce the gender role.  I like using urinals -- since I am a guy.  But, if we are going to have "gender neutral" restrooms, the restrooms will have to resemble those located in the dorms of UC Berkeley.

A major configuration is going to have to occur.  Or, just remove the urinals and paint the walls a neutral color (not blue or pink).  That is all I have to say at this point.  Oh, lets all try to get along.  Have some respect for your fellow neighbor.  Lets try to respect each other.  Have a great day.

Monday, May 23, 2016

A California Dream Spoiled By Big Oil

My wife tells the story often to strangers of her evolutional history of becoming a resident of California.  The story usually starts off with a brief introduction to her bedroom as a teenage girl with a poster of the California coastline -- the beach on it.  Dreaming, she says of the following: basking in the sun, meeting her husband, and living near the beach.  In a sense, she has obtained each.  I am a native Southern California guy.  We live inland around 40 minutes drive (without traffic) from the beach.  Periodically, we find ourselves at the beach -- like we did yesterday.  What is the issue you might ask?  Let me explain below.

The California Dream?

As I mentioned, I am a native of Southern California.  I grew up in Corona (California) which is inland from the beach aroun 60 miles.  Corona during that time was a small city.  My parents both grew up in Santa Monica by the beach.  As a result of the tremendous growth, they decided to move inland away from all of the commotion.  Of course, their family still stayed in the area, so the opportunity to visit was always present.

Corona was not the beach.  Although, Corona (during that time) had special attributes of its own.  Originally, Corona was a citrus station filled with orange trees, the urban sprawl was large.  As a result, as children we would ride our bicycles all around town distances 5 or more miles in a single direction.  In hindsight, this training turned out to be useful in motivating our  nonprofit organization -- bikecar101.

Over the years, my siblings and I spent a considerable time at our grandparents house near the beach.  We would go to the beach very often and run around burning off all the excess energy which had been built up throughout the day with other activities.  Surfing was included in the beach trips.  For us, living in California meant both the beach dream and the small town feel which is much different than living in downtown Los Angeles.  Although, today, the city of Corona has grown considerably and has but only a few orange trees left.  The rest is growth (housing and commercial buildings).

Why am I carrying on like this?  What is the point to all of this rambling?

The reason why I discuss my background is to set the stage for the following observation which I am told quite frequently.  My wife, who is from Omaha (Nebraska) will often tell me that I do not appreciate California.  At first this was strange.  I had been to quite a few other countries while serving in the US Air Force -- but that is another story for another time.  Over time, I came to ignore her when she said this to other people.  California is a wonderful place, but just like every other place in this great nation, there are wonderful attributes and not so wonderful attributes associated with the State.

More specifically, within Southern California are the same distinctions.  I am constantly amazed by this observation.  People are interesting and amusing (myself included).  Alright, now that we have that out of the way, lets get down to business.  The "California Dream" was ruined yesterday for me -- sounds strange right?  Is that even possible?  I believe that the possibility exists, let me explain.

Last weekend, a mutual friend of ours wanted to surf at Venice Beach on Saturday.  I have not surfed for a couple of years and had no board, therefore, I was not super motivated to go with him.  I did want to visit and he wanted to surf with a passion.  Turns out he just bought a board rack for his bicycle and wanted to ride down with us and hang out and surf a little.  No problem.

We got to the beach and had a great lunch.  After, he rented a wet suit and we settled on the beach near the water to watch him hit the waves.  To my amazement, the following observations were made by us on the beach that day:

Observation #1: Stain on wet suit

The first observation was a strange smeared stain that was black that ran across the wet suit that Bryce rented.  He really wanted to surf.  So much so that he was willing to wear a wet suit that had a stain which appeared like the suit had been used as "toilet paper" in the rest room.  I am not joking.  Very strange I thought to say the least.

He set out and paddled around for a while until he was tired and returned only to want to immediately get out of that wet suit.  The suit smelled dirty and as a result made him disgusted.  I thought -- after surfing for years -- that is what you get when you rent a wet suit.  At least the water washed the suit off as he was using the suit.   So I thought ...

Observation #2: Mysterious black sticky compound on my feet

When we were leaving the beach, I decided to wash my feet before putting on my shoes to bicycle back home.  I noticed that there was a black sticky compound on my feet that had sand stuck adhered to the patch.  I thought at first that upon walking across the grass near the beach, I might have walked through a patch of "dog poop."   Nope.

When we arrived at the showers, I tried to wash the stuff off of my foot.  To no avail, whatever was adhered to my foot was there to stay.  Kayla even tried to wash is off and smelled the substance to identify the smell as "bong resin."  Bong resin is the tar that accumulates at the bottom of the pipe used to smoke marijuana and stinks while having the property of being "super sticky."  I thought that the possibility of that substance stuck to my foot being "bong resin" was strong since the smell of marijuana is all encompassing Venice Beach.  I decided to stick my sock on and ride home to deal with the sticky substance stuck to my foot after in the shower.

Observation #3: Sticky substance was not "bong resin"

To my astonishment in the shower, the substance was definitely not "bong resin."  How do I know?  There was no smell or trace odor of marijuana upon closer inspection.  What was this substance?  Turns out later while talking with some friends over dinner that night who surf down at Venice, the substance was "tar."  Basically, the tar had been more common place since the oil spill by the company -- Plains All American Pipeline -- up the coast last year in Santa Barbara.  What?  That was "oil tar."

Oil Spills Aftermaths Linger For Years

I remember reading the in depth coverage of the oil spill in Santa Barbara caused by the Plain Oil Company which resulted in around 140,000 gallons of oil dumped onto the coast.  My first thought was to compare that amount to the gigantic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by the BP Oil company years ago.  Here is a direct calculation of the ratio of the spills:

Yes, the number is super small in comparison.  For this reason, I did not think to much of this spill.  In the initial blog post of this website (introductory blog post), I calculated the number of Olympic sized swimming pools that would be filled with the equivalent volume of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in 1989.  This turned out to be 30 Olympic sized swimming pools -- Wow.  What about the oil spill in Santa Barbara of 140,000 gallons of oil.  Shown below is the calculation:

Compared to other oil spills, the Refugio oil spill in Santa Barbara did not seem that large.  I would have thought that over the course of a few months, the oil would have dispersed enough to be "non-existent" -- or removed from the local beaches.

Of course, any spill can be catastrophic -- regardless of volume.  According to the news accounts, the damage to the environment was not known at the time and would take a while to tally.  There was a large difference between the oil spills that I should mention before proceeding.  The Refugio Oil spill that occurred in Santa Barbara (California) was very close to the coastal beach.  Whereas the gigantic oil spill off the Gulf Coast of Mexico was a distance offshore.  This point of distinction needs to be made before proceeding further.  Regardless, according to the news accounts, the damage was serious.

According to a news story released nearly 10 days after the spill that appeared on the website "The Guardian" titled "Globs Of Tar Was Ashore, Closing Los Angeles Beaches," the beach was not inhabitable by visitors.  Here is an excerpt from the article:

Popular beaches along nearly seven miles (11 kilometres) of Los Angeles-area coastline were off-limits to surfing and swimming on Thursday as scientists looked for the source of globs of tar that washed ashore.

The sand and surf on south Santa Monica bay appeared virtually free of oil after an overnight clean-up, but officials weren’t sure if more tar would show up. They planned to assess during low tide at midday.

Public health officials told people to avoid contact with the water, wet sand or any material that washed up in the area. They warned that contact with petroleum products can cause skin irritation and result in long-term health problems.

In the initial accounts, officials did not really have an idea of the magnitude of the spill or the potential aftermath of the spill.  The only concrete piece of knowledge that could be disseminated was that "tar balls" would show up?  Alright.  Furthermore, they closed the beach while cleanup crews walked the beach as shown in a photograph taken from the article and shown below:

Source: The Guardian

Can you imagine the concerted effort that was involved in order to get the oil removed from the beach?

A month later, the news was no less reassuring that the cleanup effort was successful thus far.  In another article appearing on the website "The Guardian" titled "Cleanup Of California Oil Spill Goes Low Tech To Limit Environmental Impact," the estimate of the total cleanup was to be around $64 million dollars -- wow!  That did not include the potential damage of the spill on the environment.  Here is an excerpt from that account regarding the cleanup effort at the time:

In the latest spill, workers shoveled tar balls and contaminated sand into plastic bags that were then carried away for disposal. They also had to be careful not to disturb populations of western snowy plovers that were in the middle of their breeding season.
 “We’re more concerned about the impact of the cleanup doing more injury than the oil did originally,” said Kim McCleneghan of the state department of fish and wildlife, who responded to both spills. 
About 91% of 97 miles of coastline – mostly sandy beaches – surveyed by teams of experts from various federal and state agencies has been given the all-clear.

Since the accounts surrounding the oil spill (within a few months), the subject has gone dark.  Meaning, that the news agencies are not spending coverage on the aftermath -- a year later.  That was (so I thought over the weekend after peeling oil off of my feet) until yesterday.

Plains All American Oil Gets Fined

An article that appeared in the "New York Times" titled "Company Says It's Been Indicted For The California Oil Spill" with a picture that reminded us of the extent of the spill shown below:

Source: New York Times

We are reminded of the extent of the damage of the oil spill by the excerpt shown below which was taken from the article:

On May 19 last year, the corroded, two-foot-diameter underground pipeline broke open near Refugio State Beach, west of Santa Barbara. Much of the oil flowed into the ocean, in an area that is home to an array of shorebirds and marine mammals, and is near the migratory path of gray whales. It formed a dark plume in the water that stretched for miles and coated several beaches, harming tourism, and officials have said that tar balls from the spill washed ashore as far as 100 miles to the southeast. 
The company initially estimated the spill at 21,000 gallons, but later revised that to more than 140,000 gallons. In documents supplied to lawmakers, Plains acknowledged that it had not alerted federal regulators until more than three hours after discovering the spill.

Here is an excerpt from the article discussing the possible distribution of charges being brought by the Attorney General of California -- Kamala Harris:

The California attorney general, Kamala D. Harris, and the Santa Barbara County district attorney, Joyce E. Dudley, said a Santa Barbara County grand jury had handed up an indictment charging the company, Plains All American, with four felonies and 42 misdemeanors, and charging an employee, James Buchanan, an environmental and regulatory compliance specialist at Plains, with three misdemeanors.

The company also faces multiple civil cases in the oil spill, but criminal charges in such a case are more unusual. Ms. Harris, who is running for the United States Senate, said the indictment reflected what the company knew or should have known of the dangers posed by its actions.

“The negative impacts of this conduct were immediate and tragic,” Ms. Harris said. “Anyone who violates the law and endangers our environment is going to be held responsible.”

I am happy to see that justice is being served toward the giant oil company "Plains All American Oil" by the Attorney General.  Accidents like this should not ever go away with time.  Especially, since the environmental destruction takes time to assess and set in.  After reading these articles and revisiting the oil spill, I wondering why I happened to get oil on my feet last weekend?

Oil Seeps Naturally From The Ocean Floor?

After I had the experience (which was foreign to me) of obtaining "tar" on my foot at the beach, I started to ask around.  I found a correlation with the information obtained about the presence of "tar" on the beach and the amount of years a person had been a resident of California.  Which is to say, people who had lived here less than 10 years tended to blame the "tar" on "natural oil seeps."  This fascinated me since I had lived here and frequented the beaches up and down the coast and not once (until this time) experienced "tar" on the beach.

Yes, I knew that there had been oil rigs up and down the coastal land (slightly inland) that had come and gone.  Still, I was surprised to hear from people how they just blew off the presence of "tar" as a derivative of the following statement: "Oh, the tar?  That is caused by natural oil seeps..."  What?  I guess that the following line of reasoning might be due to the amount of oil rigs that are in the area coupled with natural places like the La Brea Tar pits.  I highlighted the astounding amount of oil rigs in LA county in a previous blog post -- 5000 -- WOW.  With this number in mind, I guess that awareness should not make my discovery a surprise.

What about "natural oil seeps?"

I started to look into these "natural oil seeps."  What I found was an institute dedicated to studying the marine ecological environment called the "Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute."  The vision of the institute is stated below:

The ocean is a defining feature of our planet and crucial to life on Earth, yet it remains one of the planet’s last unexplored frontiers. For this reason, WHOI scientists and engineers are committed to understanding all facets of the ocean as well as its complex connections with Earth’s atmosphere, land, ice, seafloor, and life—including humanity. This is essential not only to advance knowledge about our planet, but also to ensure society’s long-term welfare and to help guide human stewardship of the environment. WHOI researchers are also dedicated to training future generations of ocean science leaders, to providing unbiased information that informs public policy and decision-making, and to expanding public awareness about the importance of the global ocean and its resources.

The WHOI in abbreviated form was instrumental in the analysis of the BP Gulf Deepwater Horizon Oil spill 6 years ago.  That spill was the largest oil spill in history.  The institute played a major role in analyzing the plankton and other marine organisms trapped in water columns near the blowout of oil along with the overall oil dispersion over time within the ocean.  The main take home message of me bringing this up is to say that the WHOI has experience with "natural oil seeps" -- studying the origination and contribution to the environment.  Check out their "Research Projects" page.

After I delved into their website a little more, I found statements like the one below discussing the origination of oil in the ocean which surprised me:

Oil can come from a variety of sources, each of which influences the amount, type, and duration of a spill. The 2003 report published by the National Research Council titled Oil in the Sea III organized these sources into four categories: natural seeps, petroleum extraction, petroleum transportation, and petroleum consumption. Of these, seeps are by far the single largest source, accounting for nearly half of all the petroleum compounds released to the ocean worldwide each year. Seeps are also the only natural source of oil input to the environment. The other sources, in order of magnitude, are extraction, transportation, and consumption and stem from human activity.

An important difference between seeps and human-generated inputs is that seeps are widely distributed around the world and occur at a fairly slow and relatively constant rate.  So constant, in fact, that some animals and microbes have evolved to thrive in the presence of the chemicals that flow from the seafloor near seeps. Studies of these unique organisms and ecosystems are an important part of the picture that scientists are assembling of how oil affects marine biology.

Oil that enters the ocean as a result of extraction, transportation, or consumption often receives more attention than seeps for the simple fact that it is more visible. These events are of interest to scientists because they generally constitute large inputs from a single source and can occur anywhere in the world, often in places that have little, if any, natural ability to cope with the contamination. The impacts of oiling on individual plants and animals or on entire ecosystems range from the visible and immediate (e.g., smothering) to long-term and largely hidden (e.g., genetic disruption) and can have implications on the physical structure or health of a region for decades. Human systems, such as water supplies, fisheries, and tourism industries, are also vulnerable to oil spills, and this adds even more complexity when trying to understand the full effects of a particular event.

I was surprised to find out that nearly half of the oil in the ocean comes from natural inputs.  I am still skeptical of the situation.  Upon further research into their website, the sources of oil become more apparent and justified from a scientific standpoint.  I want to show an excerpt that will bring to light a more logical connection to my experience at Venice Beach a couple of weekends ago.  Here is the excerpt from the "natural oil seeps" webpage on the WHOI website:

In locations where seeps are found, oil flows slowly up through networks of cracks, forming springs of hydrocarbons similar to the La Brae tar pits on land. Lighter compounds rise buoyantly to the water’s surface and evaporate or become entrained in ocean currents; others fall to the seafloor and collect over hundreds or thousands of years. 

Seeps are often found in places where oil and gas extraction activities are also located. As a result, many surface slicks and tar balls caused by seeps are often attributed to releases from oil and gas platforms. The question arises, then: If oil occurs naturally in the ocean and if seeps are the biggest single source, why is there concern about the occasional accidental spill? The answer lies in the nature and rates of oil inputs by these different sources.

Seeps are generally very old and flow at a very low rate. The material that flows out is still very often toxic, but organisms some that live nearby are adapted to conditions in and around seeps. A few very unique species of animals are even able to use the hydrocarbons and other chemicals released at seeps as a source of metabolic energy. In addition, rather than being made up entirely crude oil, the material flowing from seeps is often heavily biodegraded by microbial action deep beneath the seafloor.

In contrast, the production, transportation, and consumption of oil by humans generally results in relatively short, high-volume inputs of oil and refined hydrocarbon products in places that have never experienced significant exposure to these chemicals and so do not have many natural defenses to them. As a result, seeps are often looked upon as a living laboratory for scientists to study how natural processes affect the fate of released oil or how individual species or communities of plants and animals are capable of dealing with the burden of otherwise toxic chemicals. From this may one day come a better understanding of how to help places affected by oil spills recover and regain much of their pre-spill health and function.

These last four paragraphs justify my experience at the beach a couple of weeks ago.  Within the excerpt above, the contribution from the extraction and transport processes play a large role in the "tar" encountered on the beaches.  Additionally, this coincides with the statements I have heard since my experience from older "locals" of the Los Angeles area.  Some will not even go into the water anymore to surf because of the oil "tar" -- which has increased over the years.  This brings me to my last question:

Why has no one mentioned the increase in "tar" on the beaches or reported on the increase?

Have we all lost our minds? And as a result are just accepting of this unusual occurrence?

Something is unusual here.  I am very surprised that not one of these communities along the coast (Malibu, Santa Barbara, Manhattan, Santa Monica, etc.) have not been outraged at the increased occurrence of "tar" on the beaches.  Simply amazing.


I remain skeptical of the contribution of the "natural oil seeps" due to the science of the flow rate and leakage along with the evolution of natural organisms to capitalize on their location and use the various hydrocarbons for nutrients.  This seems to me to be natural. Yet, these organisms would not leave behind giant "tar balls" to be washed up onto shore.  And if so, why would generations not be complaining about the presence of such organic matter on the shore.

The beaches in California are nearly worshipped along with the weather.  Over the generations, I am surprised to not hear anything of these natural occurrences.  Therefore, I tend to favor the other opinion that I hold -- the big oil companies are to blame for the increase in "tar" on our beaches.  With the presence of the "fall out" from last year's 140,000 gallons, I am more inclined to attribute the increase in "tar" to events such as those (as terrible as they may be).

Last Thursday, KPCC (a radio station) had a story titled "Pipeline Operator Could Face Additional Penalties For Santa Barbara Oil Spill" which talked about the disaster briefly and the "final investigative report" released by authorities regarding the Plains All American Pipeline's failure in last year's oil spill.  Here was the introduction to the story below which justifies my skepticism regarding a greater contribution from "Big Oil" rather than "natural oil seeps":

An oil pipeline company responsible for a massive spill on the California coast a year ago didn't do enough to prevent corrosion and its operators didn't detect and react to the spill quickly enough, federal regulators said Thursday.

Plains All American Pipeline also didn't have adequate systems in place to signal there was a major leak in the pipeline running near the Santa Barbara County coast, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said in its final investigation report.

"The operators failed on multiple levels to prevent, detect and respond to this incident," agency Administrator Marie Therese Dominguez said. "A number of preventable errors led to this incident and the company's failures in judgment, including inadequate assessment of this line, and faulty planning made matters worse. What happened is completely unacceptable and we will hold the company accountable."

I think that enough has been said on the matter.  What is next is the litigation followed by action.  What does "action" look like?  Well, each of us need to follow horrible stories like this and take "action" by writing (e-mail or written letter, or call) our local representatives and explain that these events do not justify the drilling that is going on currently.  All oil drilling should be shut down in the region until an agreement between large oil companies and agencies along with the public can be reached.

How much more of the environment do we need to damage before the message is heard?  As of this moment, the public and legislatures appear to be wearing "ear muffs" to buffer out the noise (outcry) of this damaging action by the oil companies.   Until next time, your assignment is to read more about the oil seeps and the part that "Big Oil" is playing into them.  Have a great day.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Ambassador Of Chemistry Has Followed Me All Of My Life -- Even In the Military

When your friends and family members realize that your majoring in Chemistry in college, you instantly become the "ambassador of chemistry."  Maybe the motivation behind that is to help motivate the person to really become the best chemist that is possible.  The realization that I had a mind that was tuned in to chemistry/physics came to me in high school at lunch time.

In the following paragraphs, I will explain how chemistry followed me into the military.  Specifically, I will highlight two separate environments -- high school and the military to illustrate my point -- your passion/interests are constantly intersecting your life.  Do you believe me? If not, read more below.  If so, read more below.

When Did Chemistry Appeal To Me?

Growing up, my father would always talk to me about chemistry.  Part of that is due to that he loved chemistry.  He is a true academic in the sense that he could get lost in studying science.  If he were to be taken hostage and locked up in a library, given the proper amount of food and clothing, he would live the remainder of his life happy as ever.  I remember when I was in Junior High, he put a bumper sticker on his car that read "Honk If You Got an A In P-Chem."  Who would have thought that two decades later I would become a "physical chemist."

My first exposure in academia to chemistry was kind of "off the beaten path."  I used to "ditch" classes quite a bit.  I missed a lot of high school one particular semester.  As a result, I was given a punishment.  First, I would attend Saturday detention from 8 am - 12 pm.  I remember my father proudly dropping me off to attend.  He was happy that I received a proper punishment for missing school.  Additionally, I had to skip lunch and report to the chemistry/physics teacher's classroom -- Mr. Barth -- now Dr. Barth.

What seemed like a punishment then, turned into a major part of my doctoral work a decade later.  I was given the task of building (with a friend) a track of alternating bar magnets.  The track was to be two magnets wide (around 4 inches) and around 6 feet long.  In total, there were around 250 magnets that we had to glue (opposite polarity) alternating (north to south).  At this point, you might ask the following question:

What was the purpose of the experiment?

In short, the object was to build a "magnetic levitation train" to measure the coefficient of friction.   Before I answer the question in detail, a visual diagram of the experimental setup would be very useful in interpreting the purpose of the experiment.  The experimental setup when completed appeared like the following photograph of the "kit" that sells today online:


In the diagram above, there appears to be a block of wood that is floating.  On either side of the track, there are plastic rails to hold the block of wood or magnetic car onto the track.  Back in the late 80s, our car was simply made out of cardboard with magnets glued onto the bottom.  There is a fair amount (a huge) of tedious work involved in building the track.  That process too prepared me for research in the physical science area.

The purpose of the track was to elevate one side of the track to form a "triangle."  The diagram would appear to be similar in nature to a block of wood sliding down a slanted surface.  Additionally, if the relevant forces are outlined, the diagram taken from the "Wikipedia" page emerges:

Source: By Krishnavedala

By studying the above diagram, the forces are outlined.  In the past, "force" has been introduced in another blog post as the product of the mass of an object with the gravitational acceleration constant pushing the object toward Earth.  Therefore, the only new concept is the force of friction.  Friction is created all around us.  Stop reading this blog and rub your hands together.  Do they start to heat up?  That is due to the friction between the two surfaces of your hands.  Got it! Good.

With a magnetic levitating track, where is the friction?  The only source of friction (neglecting wind resistance) is due to the car (cardboard) rubbing up against the plastic rails on the track.  By changing the angle of the track relative the the ground and measuring the time of travel, the coefficient of friction is easily determined.  That was our challenge.

I say "our" because there was another gentlemen in the room assigned to the project.  He did not miss school like me.  In fact, he was a straight "A" student.  He had a name -- Gil Vitug.  We became and remain very good friends.  At the time, he was more attracted to the physics side of life.  Years later, we both graduated with our doctorate degrees (Ph.D.) from University of California at Riverside.  He was working in Astrophysics (working at the Stanford Linear Accelerator) while I was working on developing instrumentation for Nuclear Magnetic Resonance experiments.

From that experience, both of us learned the ability to extract a large amount of information from a low-cost setup.  Finding a way with limited funding to measure a quantity is extremely useful.  Especially, as science funding is becoming more difficult to receive.  That was a valuable experience and served as a springboard to which we became "science ambassadors."  Out of our school class, we were the two to work in academia.

After high school, I entered college and majored in chemistry with the intention of becoming a surgeon.  I wanted to end up in experimental medicine.  I even defined my own field -- experimental medicine.  Today, that desire would have translated to obtaining a "Md/Ph.D" degree and working in a government laboratory.  I had no clue at the time.  In fact, my father sat me down and had a talk with me during my junior year of college.  He suggested that I look into graduate school in chemistry rather than medicine based on my responses to his questions regarding experimental medicine.  I was at the time and remain extremely grateful for that discussion.

Why did I diverge onto that tangent?

Out of those experiences, came a love for chemistry.  The experiences were not traditional to me.  Late night discussions with my father over topics such as dropping a penny into a bottle of beer spurred my interests in thinking about chemistry.  I was not a good student in school.  I did show up every day to class.  And, I was able to entertain concepts in science reasonably well.  The concepts would be in my head.

What remained to be a delinquency was the patience to sit down and study along with explaining the concepts contained within my head.  The process of beginning to tackle that delinquency took up the better part of the next decade.  Although, with the help of certain individuals (like my father and Dr. Bath along with Gil -- now Dr. Vitug) and a military sergeant, the path was easier.  Each person challenges me to become a better person.  Furthermore, optimizing the shortcomings in my life has been a continuous challenge -- still to this day.  Let me explain briefly how.

Chemistry In The Military?

How can a soldier study chemistry in the military?  As I mentioned in a previous blog post, chemistry is all around us.  Everything involves chemistry!  What determines whether a soldier studies or utilizes chemistry is their job classification or rank.  If an enlisted soldier decides to become an officer, he/she returns to college and majors in science.  That could involve returning to a job in the military that involves directly performing research.

Although, the more probable situation would be to assigned a job where the requirements have no direct connection to chemistry.  Additionally, as an enlisted soldier, the job is most likely going to entail no direct connection to research in sciences.  That is reserved more for a position like an officer or a civilian employee.

I was assigned to work as an electrician on the fighter aircraft F-16.  That entailed working on the jet on the "flight line" along with working on the parts in a "back shop" setting.  What is the difference between the two: "flight line" and "back shop"?  Working on the "flight line" involves removing electrical components (generators, rheostats, controllers, batteries, chargers, etc.) and environmental components (bleed air valves, air condition controllers, water separation units, etc.) along with repairing the associated wiring and ducting to those components.

This is different from working in the "back shop" or the component repair shop.  The component repair shop is a The two types of work are very different but have the same mission.  The overall mission is to keep aircraft in the air.  With that being said, work that arrives in the "back shop" or component repair shop can be from any aircraft -- not just the F-16.  Since our base (Shaw AFB, South Carolina) was a predominantly F-16 air base, most of the components that we encountered to repair were from F-16 aircraft.

What does all this have to do with chemistry and being a chemistry ambassador?

When I first arrived at the base, my supervisor -- Master Sergeant Daniel Jonas asked me a series of questions.  These included if I had any college or university experience.  I answered yes -- I had 4 years in chemistry before dropping out.  He scolded me for dropping out and encouraged me to finish my degree in the military (and become an officer).  He also sent me to the "Middle East" 18 months out of the 24 months -- due to my popularity (hard work ethics).  Even though I did not get to go back to school while serving my country, I had the ability to demonstrate my knowledge of the field of chemistry by an assignment -- which was an interesting and unusual occurrence in the military.  Especially for an enlisted soldier in his/her first tour of duty.

Master Sergeant Daniel Jonas was a curious man.  In fact, he had an unquenchable thirst for information -- spanning all disciplines from economics through physical sciences.  He was a very interesting person to say the least.  I have often wondered how I happen to run across people in my life like him -- I am extremely fortunate.  My wife says, I attract these people -- who see my potential.  Maybe she is correct.

Anyways, Msgt. Jonas realized an issue with a battery and called on my chemistry skills to fix the problem.  Specifically, he was concerned about two aspects of recharging (or reconditioning) the F-16 battery.  First, the unusually large amount of waste generated in the process of charging the battery.  Second, the methodology of charging the battery which degraded the lifetime of the battery -- which was nominally around 3-5 years.  Let me explain the situation using science language.

Hazardous Waste Generation

The F-16 battery is a single unit (one case) that houses 24 cells that are linked together in "series."  A picture of the battery is shown below:

Source: Public Domain

With the diagram of each "cell" shown below:

Source: By Ransu, Public Domain

In order to understand the problems that Msgt. Jonas recognized, the chemical reactions of the discharging and charging cycle of the battery need to be known.  Shown below are the chemical reactions of the two cycles of the Nickel Cadmium battery taken from the patent webpage for the "battery charger":

Upon inspection of the chemical reactions, the hydroxide ions play a critical role in the discharge/charge cycle over the course of the life of the battery.  The electrolyte solution must contain a chemical that upon dissociation produces a hydroxide ion.  For the battery above, the chemical is a solution of potassium hydroxide in water.  This is important in recognizing the problem that needed to be fixed to extend out the life of the battery.

I was tasked to understand the charging/discharging cycle of the battery.  Furthermore, I was tasked with explaining the problem to the other members of the back shop working on the batteries.  Before I go into that, the charging cycle needs to be understood.  Looking at the "Wikipedia" page for the "Nickel-Cadmium Battery" the process proceeds like in the following manner:

Vented cell (wet cell, flooded cell) NiCd batteries are used when large capacities and high discharge rates are required. Traditional NiCd batteries are of the sealed type, which means that charge gas is normally recombined and they release no gas unless severely overcharged or a fault develops. Unlike typical NiCd cells, which are sealed, vented cells have a vent or low pressure release valve that releases any generated oxygen and hydrogen gases when overcharged or discharged rapidly. Since the battery is not a pressure vessel, it is safer, weighs less, and has a simpler and more economical structure. This also means the battery is not normally damaged by excessive rates of overcharge, discharge or even negative charge.
They are used in aviation, rail and mass transit, backup power for telecoms, engine starting for backup turbines etc. Using vented cell NiCd batteries results in reduction in size, weight and maintenance requirements over other types of batteries. Vented cell NiCd batteries have long lives (up to 20 years or more, depending on type) and operate at extreme temperatures (from −40 to 70 °C).
A steel battery box contains the cells connected in series to gain the desired voltage (1.2 V per cell nominal). Cells are usually made of a light and durable polyamide (nylon), with multiple nickel-cadmium plates welded together for each electrode inside. A separator or liner made of silicone rubber acts as an insulator and a gas barrier between the electrodes. Cells are flooded with an electrolyte of 30% aqueous solution of potassium hydroxide (KOH). The specific gravity of the electrolyte does not indicate if the battery is discharged or fully charged but changes mainly with evaporation of water. The top of the cell contains a space for excess electrolyte and a pressure release vent. Large nickel plated copper studs and thick interconnecting links assure minimum effective series resistance for the battery.
The venting of gases means that the battery is either being discharged at a high rate or recharged at a higher than nominal rate. This also means the electrolyte lost during venting must be periodically replaced through routine maintenance. Depending on the charge–discharge cycles and type of battery this can mean a maintenance period of anything from a few months to a year.
Vented cell voltage rises rapidly at the end of charge allowing for very simple charger circuitry to be used. Typically a battery is constant current charged at 1 CA rate until all the cells have reached at least 1.55 V. Another charge cycle follows at 0.1 CA rate, again until all cells have reached 1.55 V. The charge is finished with an equalizing or top-up charge, typically for not less than 4 hours at 0.1 CA rate. The purpose of the over-charge is to expel as much (if not all) of the gases collected on the electrodes, hydrogen on the negative and oxygen on the positive, and some of these gases recombine to form water which in turn will raise the electrolyte level to its highest level after which it is safe to adjust the electrolyte levels. During the over-charge or top-up charge, the cell voltages will go beyond 1.6 V and then slowly start to drop. No cell should rise above 1.71 V (dry cell) or drop below 1.55 V (gas barrier broken).

The take home point was that there was maintenance involved in the discharging/charging process over the course of the life of the battery.  My supervisor wondered why the life of the battery was no where near the length that was written by the factory.  This is where my job started -- since I had a chemistry background and interest in science.

To accommodate the expansion of the volume of liquid during the charging cycle, each instrument had a "turkey baster" sitting next to it for the easy removal of excess water.  During the dynamic charging cycle, the cells would expand due to the hydrogen gas being liberated.  The caps would be loosened and set beside the battery.  Essentially, the battery sat on the table top hooked up the charger and "open" (vent caps removed) to the environment.  Unknown to us at the time, that is where the problems lay the entire time -- the open cells to the atmosphere.  Why?


There were a couple of issues with the charging/disharging cycles that I started to mention above which may be confusing.  After the charging cycle, the "electrolyte" level might need to be adjusted (meaning removal or addition of water with the "turkey baster" device shown above) as discussed in the excerpt above.

The problem with this is the removal of the following: 1) electrolyte mixture -- KOH and H20 (Potassium hydroxide and water), and 2) the electrode (which decomposed).  Collecting these two chemicals is and disposing them safely (not down the drain) is required.  This means that the solution of waste has to be kept in a "hazardous waste" container -- which is picked up each week by a disposal company.  Each weak, the shop would generate on the order of 55 gallons of "hazardous waste" -- mostly water, but a little bit of potassium hydroxide, electrode (cadmium, nickel, etc.).   As you might imagine, this was a huge motivation to determine how to extend the life of the battery.

During the addition of water or the extraction of the electrolyte after charging, the problem was that the internal concentrations of all components had changed.  If the "turkey baster" was used to pull out water/KOH and electrode material, the over the course of the lifecycle of the battery -- each time that the battery was sent to be conditioned in the "back shop" -- the battery would be degraded ever so slightly.  Adding this up over time, renders the battery unusable.

Couple this to the competing chemical reaction occurring with the air -- which is shown below:

This reaction was not known to occur at the time of our investigation.  If Msgt. Jonas had not been so persistent in understanding all chemical reactions within the F-16 battery, the situation (short lifetime of the battery) would have continued on for decades.  What did I learn out of this?  Does any of this make sense to you (the reader)?  I know that I have been rambling on for a while.


The point I would like to make with this post is that a persons true passion becomes apparent eventually in one's life -- whether they pursue work within that passion or not.  For Master Sergeant Jonas, that passion is an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.  He is a power house of knowledge and commands those around him "in directly" to be thirsty as well.  Amazing.  I have always loved chemistry in one form or another.  Dr. Dan Barth has taught chemistry and physics for decades.  My father shares a passion for the physical sciences (as well as others too).  Put all of us in a room together or have us interact with each other, and these shared interests will become apparent soon.  Additionally, each one will show their specific talent or interests over time.

Regardless if a person pursues their interests or not, those interests will become apparent over time.  For me, hanging out in the chemistry and physics classroom benefitted me greatly -- since this experience was aligned with my interests.  I imagine that the school counselor who assigned me to the room instead of detention saw my interests shine through at some point in our interactions.

Similarly, when I arrived in the US Air Force at Shaw AFB -- I must have exuded the interests in sciences.  This later caused me to be chosen to interpret and explain the work of Master Sergeant Jonas and the extension of the F-16 battery.  What does this have to do with you?

If you are at a point in your life where you have no idea of where to go in moving forward, just keep moving forward.  Eventually, your interests will come to the surface.  But, you must be willing to listen to yourself and observe your interests.  I will you luck in your adventure pursuing your interests.  Have a great day.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Are The Elements Hydrogen And Helium "Of This World"?

Have you seen the image shown below on a t-shirt or a bumper sticker on a vehicle?  How about a tattoo of the image?

I remember being thoroughly confused the first time that I saw the image on the back of a truck's window.  Of course, I was equally confused when I saw the word "YOLO" in print the first time too.  "YOLO" means "You Only Live Once."  "NOTW" means "Not Of This World."  There are many of these little shortened statements floating around the internet.  Why is "NOTW" important and used in the same title as the chemical elements Hydrogen and Helium?  Great question.

Short answer: Read the paragraphs below to find out!

Long answer: The other day I was thinking about the concept of "escape velocity" and these two elements came to mind.  If set free, will each of the elements in gaseous form leave "our world" -- the atmosphere around planet Earth?  In the answer is yes, then these two elements are "Not Of  This World."  First, lets focus on the crucial question: Why does the escape occur?  What properties allow that to happen?  The answers are contained in the paragraphs below.

Escape Velocity?

If you were to go outside onto your yard lawn and jump up into the air, what would happen?  You would probably briefly rise up into the air and then begin to descend back onto the lawn.  Why?  The reason is due to the Earth's gravitational field.  As I wrote in an earlier post on force, the gravitational field is exerting a force to accelerate your body onto the surface of the Earth.   This is Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation and can be represented by the equation below:

where 'm' is the mass and 'g' is vector representing the acceleration of gravity with a constant magnitude of 9.81 m/s^2 (meters per second squared) toward Earth.  Why is this important?  Well, you would have to understand the effects of gravity if you were going to launch a spacecraft into space right?  You would have to plan to overcome the gravitational field in a safe manner without destroying your spaceship in the process?  The general equation for a Force on mass-1 due to the gravitational pull of mass-2 can be represented by the following equation shown below:

Where G is the gravitational constant and the two masses experiencing this pull between one another are represented by m1(mass-1) and m2 (mass-2).  Furthermore, the strength of the gravitational force varies by the inverse of the square of the distant between the two masses.  Simply stated right.  Therefore, to escape this force, energy would be needed.

How does one calculate the escape velocity for an object to leave the atmosphere?

In order to break the gravitational barrier, the proper energy must be obtained.  Two questions need to be answered in order to arrive at a escape velocity:

1) How much energy is required to break the gravitational barrier?

2) How much kinetic energy is required to break the gravitational barrier?

A this point you might be slightly confused.  I just showed you an equation for the force between two masses with a gravitational pull.  Now, I am asking about kinetic energy?  Where is the connection between the two?  Fair enough.

To start with, the force is holding us on the planet.  As a thought experiment, we can think of a rock on top of a mountain.  That rock has a large amount of potential energy.  If that rock were to roll down the mountain, the potential energy would be converted into kinetic energy.  In order to drive the point home, an excerpt from the "Wikipedia" page for "potential energy" might help the reader understand the work (energy) required to break the gravitational field is shown below:

There are various types of potential energy, each associated with a particular type of force. For example, the work of an elastic force is called elastic potential energy; work of the gravitational force is called gravitational potential energy; work of the Coulomb force is called electric potential energy; work of the strong nuclear force or weak nuclear force acting on the baryon charge is called nuclear potential energy; work of intermolecular forces is called intermolecular potential energy. Chemical potential energy, such as the energy stored in fossil fuels, is the work of the Coulomb force during rearrangement of mutual positions of electrons and nuclei in atoms and molecules. Thermal energy usually has two components: the kinetic energy of random motions of particles and the potential energy of their mutual positions.

In equation form, the potential energy is shown as follows:

Again, to launch into space, the potential energy (stored energy) needs to be converted into 100% kinetic energy (the energy of motion).  Following this line of reasoning leave us to equate the two energies as shown below:

To determine the escape velocity needed to break the Earth's gravitational pull.  Before the above equation is rearranged to solve for "v" -- velocity, one more substitution needs to be made.  The substitution is an expression for the gravitational acceleration at the surface of the earth.  Below is an expression to substitute for G in the equation above:

If the above expression is substituted into the equation for gravitational potential energy, the expression below is the relation of the energy needed to escape the surface of the Earth:

Now, the above expression is the escape velocity required to leave the Earth's gravitational pull.  The remaining task is to plug numbers into the equation and calculate the velocity as shown below:

There you have the answer.  In order to break Earth's gravitational pull, an object (i.e., spaceship, molecules, atoms, etc.) needs to travel at minimum escape velocity of 7 miles per second.  Take a look at a map.  Look for a landmark or geographical point that is 7 miles away from your house.  Imagine, traveling that distance in one second.  Wow!

That sets the discussion in motion with a definite answer.  The space shuttle carries fuel which helps propel it into orbit.  Are there any natural objects that might possess enough energy to escape the Earth's atmosphere without fuel?  I cannot think of any off the top of my head that travel normally at 7 mile/sec.  That is what I would expect to hear from most people.  Sub-atomic particles travel quickly.  Entertaining this question, I recalled hearing years ago that both chemicals -- Helium and Hydrogen possess enough energy to escape the atmosphere.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about cooking pasta like a chemist.  The point of that post was to inspire people to imagine the dynamic environment that is occurring in the boiling water and the headspace just above it.  While writing that post, I could not help but to return to the statement that I had heard several years earlier regarding both chemicals -- Helium and Hydrogen -- possessing enough energy to escape Earth's gravitational field.   I started narrowing my curiosity down to the following question:

What properties enable the elements hydrogen and helium to escape the Earth's atmosphere?

Are these two chemicals special?  Do other chemicals possess enough energy to escape Earth's gravitational field?

The answer is interesting but somewhat complex and still being researched.  Below, I start to discuss the parameters which might give both of these chemicals the ability to act special (in the sense of escaping into space).  Read on below to find out the answer.

Hydrogen & Helium Are Special!

As I found out, the process is simple yet complicated.   How does that figure?  Simple yet complicated?  In order to understand the statement about these elements, we must take a divergent step for a brief backstory in chemistry.  These two elements are gases at room temperature.  In order to describe the behavior of the gases at a particular temperature, the "probability distribution" created by James Clerk Maxwell must be shown to illustrate our point.  First, lets read the description of the "probability distribution" of molecular speeds devised by him taken from "Wikipedia":

In statistics the Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution is a particular probability distribution named after James Clerk Maxwell and Ludwig Boltzmann. It was first defined and used in physics (in particular in statistical mechanics) for describing particle speeds in idealized gases where the particles move freely inside a stationary container without interacting with one another, except for very brief collisions in which they exchange energy and momentum with each other or with their thermal environment. Particle in this context refers to gaseous particles (atoms or molecules), and the system of particles is assumed to have reached thermodynamic equilibrium.[1] While the distribution was first derived by Maxwell in 1860 on heuristic grounds,[2] Boltzmann later carried out significant investigations into the physical origins of this distribution.
A particle speed probability distribution indicates which speeds are more likely: a particle will have a speed selected randomly from the distribution, and is more likely to be within one range of speeds than another. The distribution depends on the temperature of the system and the mass of the particle.[3] The Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution applies to the classical ideal gas, which is an idealization of real gases. In real gases, there are various effects (e.g., van der Waals interactions, vortical flow, relativistic speed limits, and quantum exchange interactions) that can make their speed distribution different from the Maxwell–Boltzmann form. However, rarefied gases at ordinary temperatures behave very nearly like an ideal gas and the Maxwell speed distribution is an excellent approximation for such gases. Thus, it forms the basis of the Kinetic theory of gases, which provides a simplified explanation of many fundamental gaseous properties, including pressure and diffusion.[4]

The distribution is very useful in describing the behavior of "ideal gases".  In this context, helium is considered an "ideal gas" -- why you might ask?  Because one of the properties of the helium molecule is "inertness".  What does this mean?  Typically, that helium does not react with other gases.   On a side note, helium is very useful in carrying out chemical reactions that are "air sensitive." Helium gas is "inert" and serves the purpose of providing an "reactive" free environment in which desired chemicals can be introduced to carry out a chemical reaction.  What do I mean by this?  In the photograph below, there is a picture of a graduate student carrying out a chemical reaction in a "glove box" which is "air sensitive" -- the atmosphere in this case is Argon -- another "inert gas":

 Using an environment of helium or nitrogen or argon is common in any chemistry department in the world.

What does this "probability distribution" look like?

Shown below is the general representation of Maxwell's Distribution of molecular/atomic Speeds:

Source: Pdbailey at English Wikipedia

As you can see, the distribution is greatly dependent on molecular weight.  A heavier element like Xenon with a molecular mass of 131.293 grams/mole has a narrow range of speeds (0-500 m/s).  Whereas the element Argon has a molecular mass of 40 grams/mole and a broader distribution (0-900 m/s).  The lightest of the "Noble gases" is helium with a molecular mass of 4 grams/mole and a broad distribution (0-2500 m/s).

From this information, you should be able to compare the highest speed with that of the escape velocity needed to break the gravitational field from the previous calculations above for a space ship.  Additionally, the other variable that determines the shape and location (i.e., the speed) is the temperature.  After a brief search "online" I was able to find a good representation of the "probability distribution" dependency on temperature.  For a given gas at two different temperatures, "OpenStax" has a great diagram shown below:

Source: OpenStax

Notice how the average speed of the molecule changes along with the top speed (determined by the tail of the distribution length) shown in the colors red and green.  At higher temperatures, the distribution gets broad and the top speed is much greater.  This is important in understanding how the gases act in the upper atmosphere.  Naturally, at this point, you are probably asking yourself, how high would the temperature have to be to eject (play a dominant role) in the escape velocity.

What about temperature?

In order to calculate the temperature needed to provide enough thermal energy to eject a molecule of helium or hydrogen, an expression is needed for the speed of molecules at a given temperature.  For this, the analysis of the "probability distribution" (breaking down the nature of the distribution curves) yields a "root-mean-square" speed of the following form:

In order to calculate the temperature, the above expression needs to be rearranged to solve for temperature T as follows:

Plugging in the remaining values for the mass of the Earth, M, the "root-mean-square" speed, and the gas constant, R, yields the following:

That is hot!  Does the atmospheric temperature ever reach the above temperature?  Hopefully, not -- at least in the lower atmosphere.  Further, the temperature does not reach this value along the distribution of height with temperature.  Therefore, the only way to obtain enough energy to escape is through interacting in the complex upper atmosphere.

There are a number of factors along with the collisional energy that allow both molecules (hydrogen and helium) to escape.  For the purposes of this post, we will focus on the dominant factor -- collision energy.

How does a person visualize this complexity within the atmosphere above them?

Look up into the sky.  If the weather calls for a storm, then there will be clouds and just by inspection, the situation does not look good.  Clouds help us visualize the complexity going on in the sky at any given moment.  The shape gives us insight into the various patterns of wind moving around at various heights.  Although, we are not able to perceive the depth of various patterns from the ground.  Can we do better?

Sure, watch the weather channel with the satellite images.  Shown below is a short video of a satellite image of a storm moving through the Southern California region.  Watch how the storm moves across the region.

On the screen, the movement appears to be slow.  But, if you had a sensor up in the sky, the situation might appear to be much more chaotic.  Why is this realization important?  Because, according the the explanation above based on the distribution of speeds of gases at a given temperature, even the lightest gases (hydrogen and helium) lack sufficient energy to overcome the barrier to escape the atmosphere.  Naturally, this leads up to the following question:

Where does the remainder of the kinetic energy come from?

I was thinking about this while walking through campus over the last few days.  Suddenly, I realized that the complexity in the atmosphere might easily be understood (visually) by looking at the state Lottery.  Yes, the lottery.  If you take a look at the short video (less than 30 seconds)below of the lottery drawing, you will see a container with balls that are being mixed quite rapidly.

If we were to remove the hype of the lottery and focus on the experiment (balls being mixed inside a container), then we should focus on the video below.  Shown below is a video of just the "SmartPlay" lottery mixer:

As you can see, there is a large amount of kinetic energy in the system to begin with which is being supplied by the air to mix the balls in the container.  When the time comes to draw a ball -- which is indicated by one ball being "ejected" up the center column and held by air to be read by the lottery announcer.  The balls in the container could be compared to the atoms and molecules that are being mixed by the wind currents (in addition to the Earth's rotational energy contribution).  The Earth rotates at a speed of around

The process of "ejecting" the ball could be analogous to a "chaotic current" in the upper atmosphere which would give the helium molecule enough energy to overcome the remainder of the barrier to the appropriate escape velocity of 7 miles/sec.

Formally, the bridge that connects Maxwell's Distribution of speeds with the escape velocity was introduced by a physicist named James Jeans.  According to "Wikipedia," the mechanism of "Jeans escape" is a thermal contribution from the solar energy.  Here is an excerpt:

One classical thermal escape mechanism is Jeans escape.[1] In a quantity of gas, the average velocity of a molecule is determined by temperature, but the velocity of individual molecules change as they collide with one another, gaining and losing kinetic energy. The variation in kinetic energy among the molecules is described by the Maxwell distribution.
The kinetic energy and mass of a molecule determine its velocity by E_{\mathit{kin}}=\frac{1}{2}mv^2.
Individual molecules in the high tail of the distribution may reach escape velocity, at a level in the atmosphere where the mean free path is comparable to the scale height, and leave the atmosphere.
The more massive the molecule of a gas is, the lower the average velocity of molecules of that gas at a given temperature, and the less likely it is that any of them reach escape velocity.
This is why hydrogen escapes from an atmosphere more easily than carbon dioxide. Also, if the planet has a higher mass, the escape velocity is greater, and fewer particles will escape. This is why the gas giant planets still retain significant amounts of hydrogen and helium, which have largely escaped from Earth's atmosphere. The distance a planet orbits from a star also plays a part; a close planet has a hotter atmosphere, with a range of velocities shifted into the higher end of the distribution, hence, a greater likelihood of escape. A distant body has a cooler atmosphere, with a range of lower velocities, and less chance of escape. This helps Titan, which is small compared to Earth but further from the Sun, retain its atmosphere.
An atmosphere with a high enough pressure and temperature can undergo a different escape mechanism - "hydrodynamic escape". In this situation the atmosphere simply flows off like a wind into space, due to pressure gradients initiated by thermal energy deposition. Here it is possible to lose heavier molecules that would not normally be lost. Hydrodynamic escape has been observed for exoplanets close-to their host star, including several hot Jupiters (HD 209458b, HD 189733b) and a hot Neptune (GJ 436b).

Interestingly enough, the variation of the speeds in the Maxwell distribution are similar to the deficit of Professor Jeans idea regarding the loss of gases to space.  According to measurements made after he passed, the escape mechanism (based on thermal energy) cannot account for all of the gas that has escaped the orbit.  Therefore, we are left with other mechanisms at play that contribute energy -- known and others that are unknown (i.e. still being researched).

As I mentioned at the beginning of the section regarding the elements hydrogen and helium, the dynamics are complex.  Amazingly enough, contributions from insightful physicists such as James Clerk Maxwell and James Jean have withstood the test of time and held up as a significant contribution to evaluating molecular speeds based on temperature, molecular mass, and gravitational pull.  How the gravitational system contributes to the escape of the distribution (the tail of the distribution without sufficient energy to obtain escape velocities) remains to be discovered?


The dynamics are complex in the atmosphere above us.  I say that not as an excuse, but a challenge to conquer them in the future.  Find out what types of collisional energy contribute the escape velocity of a hydrogen atom.  Why do other "heavier" molecules escape sometimes?  How do other collisional exchanges contribute -- Rotational energy, Translational energy, etc.?  How does the Earth's rotation contribute to the escape velocity of these small molecular systems?

One take-away message is concrete among many uncertain.  That is, our ability to send a manned space shuttle into space without problems of breaking the gravitational pull is absolutely amazing.  Our technological development has led us to understand the atmosphere to a large extent.  As you can see, there is still a lot of room to grow intellectually.  This is where each of us come in.  We need to continue to opt for funding for space programs.  As I will discuss in future posts, many technological developments are created as a result of such research.  Until then, keep on learning as much as you possibly can about the world.  Have a great weekend.