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Essays of the Five Elements August 20, 2009

Posted by frostwolftfirerose in Uncategorized.
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In the category of things I’ve learned along the way:

Physical Properties of Oxygen

Oxygen most naturally exists as a paired atom, or having diatomic structure.  The chemical notation “O2” has come to be known as that of pure oxygen.  In its monatomic state, oxygen can combine instantly with every other element with the exception of fluorine and the noble gases (helium, argon, etc.), which already have full electron shells and do not react with any other element.  (Oxides form 43% of the earth’s surface composition; the earth is predominantly air, it would appear.)  Diatomic oxygen is more stable than either monatomic or triatomic (O3) which is also called “ozone.”  (The word “ozone” comes from the Greek word for “I smell.”)  Ozone in the upper atmosphere protects the planet from ultraviolet radiation, but in the lower atmosphere becomes a toxic pollutant.  Like monatomic oxygen (which is sometimes referred to inside parentheses (e.g. (O)), because it exists only for exceedingly short periods of time), ozone is highly unstable.  It tends to degrade into diatomic oxygen which is its most common form.  The hole in the ozone layer has resulted because the chemicals released through our industrial processes have been able to accelerate this decomposition in the upper atmosphere, thus opening up the surface to greater ultraviolet radiation.

As previously noted, oxygen is the most predominant element in the earth’s crust.  Not only does it exist in oxide form, but together with yet other elements, it forms other classes of molecules.  Sodium bicarbonate, for example, is a molecule that combines sodium, carbon and oxygen together.  When oxygen combines with silicon and another element, it becomes a silicate, and likewise for nitrogen (nitrates) and phosphorus (phosphates).  As regards organic matter, the term “decay” technically refers to dead matter combining with oxygen in its process of decomposition.

Oxygen can exist as a liquid or a solid, but for it to exist at either state, extremely cold temperatures are necessary.  Solid oxygen melts at the temperature -218.4 Celsius and boils at -183 Celsius.  Liquid oxygen has been used as a rocket fuel due to its obvious combustibility properties as well as its cold temperature requirements.  It is highly dangerous and sparks and flames can instantly combust into larger fires should a sufficient fuel be present.  Oxygen itself does not burn, it supports combustion.  Its presence is required for a fire to begin, but it does not serve as the fuel.

In both the Occident and the Orient, the ancients considered air to be an element, along with fire, water and earth.  In China, however, the ancients noted that air had two sides which they thought of as the yin and yang of air.  Perhaps the Chinese observed the properties of nitrogen in the air as well as those of oxygen.  Leonardo da Vinci observed that when a fire is burned, there is a portion of the air that is not consumed. 


The Natural Process of a Forest Fire

In order to create fire, three elements must be in place:  fuel, a source of ignition that provides heat, and sufficient air.  In breaking down the essential elements, it is acknowledged that oxygen is required.  Fire is dependent upon its presence as well as a corresponding absence of drag factors such as water or nonflammable elements. 

Fuel for fire has its own distinct properties that affect what sorts of forest fires might emerge.  A languishing ecosystem with a lot of dry grass has a dangerous surface area to volume ratio in relation to flash fires. Should it stand atop other dry and compacted fuel sources, the volatility increases.  While it would appear that a bigger fuel load would mean a bigger fire, other factors need to be present.  Otherwise high fuel load becomes a fuel sink instead.  Still, should a long-standing lack of moisture, a windy day, a hillside and all sorts of dead and husky matter all be present in a given site, then all that’s needed is one lightning strike or a careless or thoughtless or malicious human to really begin to create an inferno.

Various factors can affect these three elements ( what firefighters call “the fire triangle”) that will either mitigate or augment the vehemence of a fire.  Dryer fuel can ignite quicker than wet branches, for example, just as even a gentle breeze can fan flames higher and over a broad swath of land.  Willow trees nurtured by a nearby water source make a poor possibility for a fire, even if one is struck by lightning.  Wood that tends toward dryness like balsa can be ignited rather quickly, however—though balsa burns in a very quick fashion and is consumed about as fast as it is set on fire.  Sufficiently dry trees that are positioned along a hillside would provide quite a forest fire should the spark occur during a strong wind that would push the fire up through the field of fuel awaiting.  The size of the plants that would be fuel sources also contributes to the nature of a fire, as does the presence of fuel within the decaying matter on the ground.  Within a forest, a microclimate that is cooler and wetter will impede a fire.  Conversely, a dryer area might be the font of its beginning.

In a fire, heat can travel one of three ways:  Convection, the movement of heat through gas or liquid, is the name for the process occurring when one puts their hand above a campfire.  Conduction, heat moving from molecule to molecule, takes place within an object that has been subjected to flame.  When logs or branches catch the heat, they become likely sources for combustion into flame.  Heat generated from a fire on its own as it burns the fuel without the assistance of wind or more fuel or radiation, tends the process by which trees that are proximal to one another.  Trees that are closer together can serially be lit aflame based on simple radiation should one tree become a torch.

These elements can create different sorts of behavior in fire.  A tall tree which forcibly ejects embers into the air might cause another tree to catch fire at any point along its corpus.  Depending upon other trees’ proximity to the tree burning at its crown, and the volume of trees nearby would determine whether this sort of fire would be what is referred to as a passive or independent crown fire.  (An active crown fire occurs in connection with surface fires.)  Low-lying shrubs and grasses aflame would spread at a lower level, and cinder-dry duff could create a ground fire.  Fires burn with a leading edge and can vary with rate of spread, the time it takes to completely transform fuel into ash and cinders, and the size of the blaze itself from leading edge to edge of extinction.  The energy released arises with the intensity of both the energy released in the fire’s entire zone, coupled with the intensity of the leading edge of the fire.


Why Humans Are 70% Water

Most people with some education have heard the statistic that our bodies are mostly composed of water molecules.  Letting alone for the moment that space inside all molecules makes up the most significant percentage of our bodies, understanding why water is so pertinent to the creation of a body can yield some insight.

First off, water has the highest surface tension of all common liquids.  Surface tension, the ability to cohere into drops, is integral to the coagulating process in the blood, as well as in capillary action common to plants and motile beings.  It also helps with our excretory functions, allowing the vessels of the kidneys and the intestines to guide the wastes out of our bodies.  If water molecules were easily dispersed our bodies would not have a chance to form into the whole being, let alone a whole organ or a whole tissue.

This leads to another relevant and crucial observation, that the bonds holding water together in a liquid form are not easily broken.  It takes quite a bit of energy to get water to boil, as anyone who has tried to watch a kettle rise to the occasion knows.  Boiling water requires us to set the temperature to 212 degrees Fahrenheit on the stove, but it still takes a while before it happens.  Water at boiling point is when it translates into a gaseous form, when it gives up its liquid self to become the ghost of steam in the air.  It takes about seven times the energy to turn water into steam as it does to get the stove to achieve the boiling point temperature.

The properties of water when it heads to the other end of the temperature spectrum, that it expands rather than contracts, also figures into why it is such a great building block for bodies.  As the temperature gets colder, this means that the water in our bodies responds by expanding in concert with the temperature.  The great creator of the universe mixed other elements and properties into the mix of our bodies that take this idea further to help the temperature regulation of our bodies.  There are individuals who can go barefoot in the snow and feel no discomfort.  Truth be told, we can acclimate ourselves to colder temperatures should we choose to slowly dip our skins into the coldness bit by bit.  Rather than putting on that sweater when it hits 60 degrees, if we wait until the temperature reaches 55 degrees, we will find that our bodies can easily adapt to the colder temperature, though our talker minds might have something to say about it!

Water is also the great solvent of all the liquids out there, having more dissolving ability than even sulfuric acid.  This aspect of water is what makes digestion even possible.  If something other than water was to be a basis of a body, it would have to make up for water’s ability to dissolve sugar and salt for example.  Otherwise, some of the basic elements that make up our bodies would sink to some level.  Perhaps some of the diseases that populate the human species today arise from not drinking enough water to counteract the build-up of these deposits.

We need so much water, that we probably also get quite a bit of our daily intake from the air we breathe.  When we exhale carbon dioxide when it’s cold out, we see our breaths as clouds because they are literally breath-clouds.  Like the big cumulus or cirrus clouds in the sky, our breaths are aggregations of condensed-vapor particles.

The daily seemingly everyday miracles of our bodies relies on the processes and properties of water.


Physical Properties of Soil
(With a Focus on Soil Optimal for Plant Growth)

Soil classification extends along several dimensions.  The first, soil texture, is determined by particle size.  Sand denotes the largest particles, with silt being the intermediate category and clay being the smallest.  Sand then, becomes the most porous and least water-retentive, while clay is the least porous and most water-retentive.  When referring to “loam,” what is being referenced is a mostly equivalent mix of sand, silt and clay.  Loam tends to be darker than other types of soil.  The color and hue of soils can be used as a shorthand to denote soil health.  In general, the darker the soil the more organic matter there is, and the more red or brown a soil is, the more it’s properly aerated.  Also, yellow soil shows poor drainage typically, though it can also be reflective of the sorts of matter that has contributed to its formation.

Organic matter, the leading edge for plant sustenance, comprises only 10% of soil.  This fecund portion, which holds carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen, along with other components existent more in trace quantities such as sulfur, holds responsibility for the most activity in soil, along with colloidal matter, which adds to water retention.  The other inorganic 90% of soil is comprised mostly of negatively charged (anionic) oxygen, but also silicon, aluminum, calcium, magnesium, iron, sodium and potassium which are cationic or positively charged.  Soil is by far mostly oxygen in the form of crystals wherein the element bonds with other elements.  It supplies the anions while the other elements contribute the cations for the bonding of these crystals.

Of these cation elements, calcium is the most amenable to exchange in water solution.  Cation exchange helps in plants’ nutrient uptake and are more resistant to leaching, which occurs as soil becomes weathered and pushes elements downward below the level where roots adequately form.  Calcium and aluminum offer the most exchange capacity, though aluminum is oftentimes the more prevalent element in weathered soils.  Aluminum and hydrogen produce acidity while calcium, potassium, magnesium and sodium tend more toward alkalinity. 

While inorganic matter contributes quite a bit to the growth of plants, organic matter contains many more of the nutrients required for plant growth.  Also, most plants need more alkaline soil.  (As an example, according to at least one gardener, blueberries require acidic soil that would not sustain most other plants.)  Soils can be repaired through introducing organic matter into them or planting ground covers such as oats, clover or grasses.  When there are chemical spills such as petroleum products or harsher chemicals, the technique known as bioremediation can come in handy.  Microbes that can consume the toxic chemicals are introduced into the contaminated soil and literally eat the matter as it lays there, provided other conditions such as temperature, aeration and water content are amenable.


Dark Matter Physical Properties

To ascertain the physical characteristics of dark matter, is to blindly collect snippets of information from that very darkness.  Scientists literally fly blind in this course of inquiry, but they also delve into the depths of the planet.

While scientists have not been able to “measure” much about dark matter, some properties of this elusive stuff which holds matter together have been marked.  In a news report from BBC News from 2006/02/05, astronomers infer the existence of such material “from the way galaxies rotate:  their stars move so fast they would fly apart if they were not being held together by the gravitational attraction” of this material, that makes up over 80% of the Universe that is material. 

This matter “comes in a ‘magic volume’ which happens to correspond to an amount which is 30 million times the mass of the Sun,” says Professor Gerry Gilmore of the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge.  Mr. Gilmore said that it can not be packed smaller than 1,000 light years, and that the speed of dark matter particles comes out to about 9 km/s.  Dark matter’s temperature has also been taken, at 10,000 degrees Celsius.[1]  According to Professor Bob Nichol of the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, Portsmouth, this temperature for dark matter “makes it harder to form the smallest galaxies, but does help to make the largest structures.”

In a seemingly unrelated book by Paul Pearsall, Ph.D. entitled Awe: The Dangers and Delights of Our Eleventh Emotion, Pearsall reports that the matter we can physically sense through our five senses makes up only about 4% of the universe.  22% of the universe is made up of dark matter, and the remainder is composed of something called “dark energy” which operates “to push everything away from everything else.”  Further, he adds “some scientists suggest that the nothingness of space may be breathing in a 20-billion-year cycle of an exhale-like, post-bang expansion, followed eventually by a reactive contraction in a big-crunch cosmic inhale, and so on and so on for infinity—whatever that is.”

Some scientists have been focusing on the subject of dark matter characteristics at the subatomic level as well as the astrophysical.  Dr. Dinesh Loomba of the University of New Mexico has been looking at the neutralino, one of the class of weak interacting massive particles or “WIMPs”.  Measuring these particles has not been easy.  Though Loomba suspects that they travel through our galaxy, because of their weak interactions with other matter, measurement occurrences are quite small and rare:

If you take typical estimates for WIMP properties, such as their mass, speed, and density in the solar system, you estimate something like ten billion WIMPs passing through your hand every second. But their interactions with the atoms in your hand are so weak that, with high probability, they all just pass through unhindered. During the same period of time, many ordinary particles are interacting with the atoms in your hand: Cosmic radiation, radiation from the rocks around you, even radioactivity in your own body. It’s like the cliché of looking for the needle in a haystack. You really have to be a little crazy to get involved in such a difficult problem.



In spite of the difficulties, Loomba and his research team have been able to discern a day-night variation in dark matter streams on our planet.  (This would seem to have an impact on health matters as there have been recent medical determinations that overnight workers are more at risk for all sorts of diseases, including cancer, than their diurnally employed counterparts.)  The team of researchers conduct their explorations in mines deep below the earth where much of the interfering radiation is diminished.  Deep in the earth, and deep in space, dark matter would appear to be such stuff as dreams are made on.


[1] Celsius scale inferred due to the article being from a European news outlet.



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