NOAH’S RAINBOW SERPENT – observations by Ian MacDougall


Posted in Natural Science by Ian MacDougall on May 29, 2019

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
       I summon up remembrance of things past,
       I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
       And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.
       Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
       For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
       And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
       And moan th’ expense of many a vanish’d sight.
       Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
       And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
       The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
       Which I new pay as if not paid before.
            But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
           All losses are restor’d, and sorrows end.
William Shakespeare (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616) Sonnet 30

A single phrase from a piece of music is enough to start memories ‘flooding back’ from wherever in the head it is they are kept, and however kept there; until “death’s dateless night”.                                                                                                            

The organic basis of memory is intriguing, but at the same time one of the hardest topics to research in all of science.  . The Nobel laureate Sir John Eccles retired declaring that after a lifetime of neurological research, he knew nothing more of much significance about the operation of the brain than he did when he first began work as a neurologist. He predicted also that “The last thing that man will understand in nature is the performance of his brain.”

So far, he is on track to be proved right. ;

After a working life teaching scientific thinking and scientific thought to people with fresh young active and alert personalities and minds, I may be in a position to offer an hypothesis; for which I make no claim other than it might just be something useful for some line of research in that field. What interests me right here and now is the possible manner in which information is stored in the nervous system, presumably but not necessarily exclusively, in the brain.

Though protozoans can respond to stimuli, and practice survival behaviour, it is at the level of the coelenterates that what we might call nervous systems appear.  The initial purpose appears to be coordination and telegraph-like signalling for muscle movement, principally for self-protection. Those animals are not capable of the behaviour of self-protection,  because like sponges and some protozoa, their behaviour repertoire is limited. They might as well be plants, protecting themselves as best they can with woody barriers, thorns, and the widest possible variety of stings and poisons. But any animal which through perception and response to stimuli seeks to protect itself and aid its own survival, to that extent has a form of what we might call ‘consciousness.’

Consciousness is by no means confined to the higher vertebrates. Arguably, coelenterates (eg coral polyps) and molluscs have it, at least on the above basis. A snail responds to danger by withdrawing into its shell, so protecting itself. In other words, like the living human itself gradually coming into being from zygote to embryo to foetus to baby to infant and so on, consciousness in the course of evolution has done much the same; rather than being switched on as if an electric light in the final, fully-formed conscious Homo sapiens.

I contend that a likely beginning point in any animal species’ start towards consciousness is Hamlet’s classic question: To be, or not to be? Those indifferent to their own survival tend to leave fewer than average descendants. An ability to sense a situation of danger, and respond to it in a way favouring survival, merely requires a fixed action pattern wired into the animal’s nervous system in some way, however basic that nervous system might be.                                

But also, as in many other cases in biology, a cell, tissue or organ having one initial apparent purpose can be adapted, modified or whatever  for a very different, if not apparently unrelated purpose.

The horn of a rhinoceros for example, is actually made of keratin: the same substance that makes up animal hair fibres, claws and fingernails, which are in turn modified reptilian scales inherited from ancestral fish. Amphibian legs are likewise modified fins of fish. Jawbones originated in fish as modified gill arches. Similarly, in plants, flower petals are modified leaves.

In architectural history, walls of buildings initially had the purpose of supporting the roof and keeping out wind and weather. But their vertical surfaces soon became interesting to decorators and other artists, leading to frescoes, murals and information storage and presentations in the form of wall art and writing, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs.

I contend here that the protein content of the neuronal cell membrane conceivably has a function not just in containing the cell contents, but as a repository for the vast detail of memory.

Our individual human collections of memories become within each of us a huge otherworld. That is, a world apart from the experiences of human collectives organised as communities (including communicating language communities) tribes and larger entities such as social classes and nations.

The human brain is often considered to be the most cognitively capable among mammalian brains and to be much larger than expected for a mammal of our body size. Although the number of neurons is generally assumed to be a determinant of computational power, and despite the widespread quotes that the human brain contains 100 billion neurons and ten times more glial cells, the absolute number of neurons and glial cells in the human brain remains unknown. Here we determine these numbers by using the isotropic fractionator and compare them with the expected values for a humansized primate. We find that the adult male human brain contains on average 86.1 ± 8.1 billion NeuNpositive cells (“neurons”) and 84.6 ± 9.8 billion NeuNnegative (“nonneuronal”) cells.

So 100 billion is a good round working number. There is a large number of neurones and accompanying glial cells in the human brain. The axons of those neurones are relatively long cellular tubes ending in a cell body, with numerous branches or dendrites coming off it, like branches off some leafless tree. Nerve impulses pass along a linear series of neurones insulated from each other sideways by fatty sheaths of myelin, and separated from each other end-to-end by tiny gaps called synapses. Across any synapse, the signal is carried by neurotransmitter molecules from the axon of one neurone to the dendrites of the next in the neurone series in the nerve or nerve bundle. A single neurone can have up to a thousand synapses.

For our purposes, the brain amounts to a dense electrical jelly packed out with neurones.  Let us now consider neurone dimensions. The diameter of a typical neurone is 1/106 m.

The human brain has often been viewed as outstanding among mammalian brains: the most cognitively able, the largest-than-expected from body size, endowed with an overdeveloped cerebral cortex that represents over 80% of brain mass, and purportedly containing 100 billion neurons and 10× more glial cells.

The Human Brain in Numbers: A Linearly Scaled-up Primate Brain

Neurone diameter is one one millionth of a metre or 1/1,000,000 m.  So the circumference C of any neurone, is the product of the diameter of the neurone and pi (π ).

 C = πd

π [pi in Greek] is the ratio of the length of the circumference of a circle to its diameter: 3.1415927 [approx – it is an irrational number, because C must be assumed to be an infinite number of very short straight lines.] We take the total length of the cerebral neurones as 850,000 km.

In the case of any neurone in cross-section, 

C     = the diameter of the neurone x π

       = 1/106 m x 3.14 = 3.14 x 10-6 m

The human brain’s approximately 86 billion neurons are probably connected by something like 850,000 km of axons and dendrites. Of this total, roughly 80% is short-range, local connections (averaging 680 microns in length), and approximately 20% is long-range, global connections in the form of myelinated fibers (likely averaging several centimeters in length).


As we saw, neurones are essentially pipes. Across the walls of these pipes, sodium and potassium ions exchange in a wave-like motion as the nerve impulse travels along the neurone from the axon of one to the dendrites of the next. The functional internal area of the wall of the nerve pipe is thus the pipe circumference multiplied by the total length of all the neurone pipes.  (We assume that thanks to the myelin sheath, the external membrane surface is probably not involved.)

So the neurone circumference multiplied by the average length of a neurone gives us the area Aneuron cell membrane  (one side only) of the neurone cell membrane.

Aneuron cell membrane       = area of neuron cell membrane (one side only)

                                  = C x length of av. length of neurone

                                  = 3.14 x 10-6 m x 850 x 106 m = 2.67 x 103 m2

That is to say that if one was to split all the cerebral neurones and flatten them out into a layer one neurone-membrane thick, they would cover an area of around 2, 670 square metres. That would be the area of a square around 51 metres by 51 metres. Say 50 x 50 m2. (It would be double that if we considered both inner and outer neurone surfaces, but we will not.)

If one put a human brain into a blender, added some water and turned the whole lot into a slurry, it could conceivably be spray-painted on to cover such an area to a depth of one cell membrane thickness. (The mechanics of doing it I leave to others more skilled in that field than am I.) But that checks out about right on an order of magnitude level.

Area of neuron cell membrane (Aneuron cell membrane : one side only) 

= C x total av. length of neurone

Aneuron cell membrane  = av neurone diameter x total length of neurones ( 850 x 106 m = 2.12 x 103 m2)

                             = 3.14 x 10-6 m x 850 x 106 m = 2.12 x 103 m2

                             = 2,669m2

That makes it a square of 52 m per side: say 50 m2.

Again, we would double that if both inside and outside surfaces of the neurone cell membrane are involved in memory. But I doubt they are, for the above (myelin) reason.

The neurone membrane consists of two layers of protein each one molecule thick, separated by a single layer of lipid molecules. (So it is a lipid sandwich whose ‘bread’ is protein.)

Our next question is: how many protein molecules can be packed one molecule deep into that area of 50m x 50m?                                                                                           

Take each protein molecule as being 10nm across (1 nanometre = 10^-9 m). Therefore the number of protein molecules Np needed for this will be:

Np  = 50 / 10-9 x 50 / 10-9  = 2500 x 1018

      ~ 2.5 x 1021

If we were to represent each protein molecule as grain of sand on a beach: each grain of side 1mm, we would need an area Abeach of  2.5 x 1021 mm2 to accommodate  it.

Abeach  = 2.5 x 1021 x 10-6 m2 , there being 106 sq mm in 1 sq m.

           = 2.5 x 1021 x 10-6 m2

           = 2.5 x 1015 m2

           = 2.5 x 1015 m2 x 10-6 km2

           = 2.5 x 109 km2  of beach

As the area of Australia is 7.692 million km², or 7.692 x 10^6 km2, the number of ‘Australias’  needed for  2.5 x 109 sq km of beach is 2.5 x 109 sq km /7.692 x 106 km2

         = 325 ‘Australias’

The Earth has an overall surface area of 5.1 x 108 km2 .

.So with each protein molecule in the neurone surface being represented as a 1 cubic mm sand grain, on a ‘beach’ one sand grain deep, the number of Earths we would need for this is 2.5 x 109 sq km / 5.1 x 108 km2

     = 4.9

     ~ 5 ‘planet Earths’.

In other words, scaled down from beach to neurone dimensions, on the molecular scale of things there is a rather vast protein surface inside every human brain.

BUT the vastness is even bigger than that. If each of the sand grains on that beach were to represent the protein molecules in the cell membranes of the neurones in the human brain, not only would we need a beach five times the surface area of the Earth to represent them, but as well, each of those protein molecules is made up of a selection of the 20 amino acids Nature uses to build the bodies of animals and plants, all held together by hydrogen bonds into a functional shape. And not just into any old shape. Proteins in order to function as they do in nature have to be of specific shapes.The possible combinations of amino acids and protein molecules increases; hugely.

This is illustrated by the simple act of boiling an egg. The heat denatures the ‘white’ of the egg (the albumin) and turns it from clear to white and from gelatinous to semi- solid. A shelled boiled egg will retain its ovoid shape, and can never be ‘unboiled’ again. A shelled raw egg does what such eggs have been doing since the invention of the frying pan.

As well, the sand grains on the vast five-Earths beach could be made more representative of the amino acids by each being in one of 20 colours, with each grain having information storage power according to its colour, as well as being in one of at least two orientations relative to some local point we can take as ‘fixed’ despite movement of the body, eg the orientation of the neurone cell membrane itself. One position or orientation could be for ‘on’ and another readily available one for ‘off’. Change that, and trouble follows; which is possibly why a blow to the head can be disastrous for both consciousness and memory.

Three colours only are used to form the pixels of a colour TV screen. Combinations and permutations of red, blue and green are used to make all the colours of the screen plus white (all brightly shining) and black (all off). But each protein molecule, can be one of 20 different molecular types, and can be oriented relative to its neighbours or some local fixed point in one of at least two orientation states. That can contribute to a cerebral memory system with vast possibilities for information storage.

BUT BACK TO THE BEACH. It should be apparent that with an area  2 x 1021 mm2 covered with 2 x 1021 sand grains, each grain being a cube of side 1 mm and having one of 20 distinct colours, we have considerable possibilities both for coding of information and for its storage and retrieval, provided we have ease of accessibility and some sort of writing/reading mechanism or system.

On high resolution OLED TV screens for example: we have 3 dots per pixel. Each dot is one of 3 possible colours, red, green and blue, with an illusion of intermediate spectral colours achieved by combining these primary colours. So in a square 100 pixels x 100 pixels on such a TV screen, there would be 10,000 pixels in all, each pixel consisting of 3 dots of red, green and blue. Pixels per inch (or pixels per centimeter) can also describe the resolution, in pixels, of an image file. A 100×100 pixel image printed in a 1 inch square has, by definition, a resolution of 100 pixels per inch.                                                                                         

Such a matrix could be used to store information, just as tribal lore is stored in an Australian Aboriginal dot painting.

A suitable scanner would be needed to read back the stored information in say, electronic form as a series of pulses.

Thus the neurones in the animal brain can be thought of in sum as a screen with 2 x 1021 pixels, each pixel consisting of one of 20 possible protein dots, and as the image on the TV screen is intrinsically capable of doing, capable of storing information in those protein dots. The dots would be read or otherwise accessed by suitable reading molecular apparatus, probably on the basis of the less access routinely required, the longer the time needed to effect the reading that constitutes memory recall.

One way Nature could have done this would be by placing Na+ and K+ ions to represent 1s and 0s the way digital computers use the polarity of microscopic switches in memory chips and microprocessors.                                                                               

Memory storage would then be a process of somehow moving the Na+ and K+ ions into different patterns on the cell membrane protein ‘beach’. Perhaps the myriad of glial cells might be involved in this.

Or possibly, a univalent positive ion (say, a K+ ion) is replaced with a divalent one (say a Ca2+ ion) making a local area of enhanced positivity, and thus capable of being digital code; for an item of information; ad infinitum.

In traditional book libraries, every holding (book, journal etc) is entered in a card catalogue, which becomes the first place for the information-seeking reader to go. If you know what you are looking for, then the catalogue gives you the location of the book, and the book’s index, or its table of contents,  gives you the page to go to for the information you seek.

These days cataloguing is done electronically, as indeed is information storage generally. But the library with its catalogue is still the best and most readily understandable analogy for information storage, in my humble opinion.

In computers, electrical circuits are made and broken at very high speeds, and information is stored in binary code of 1s and 0s on hard drives, memory sticks and other such devices. On a computer hard drive’s metal disc, a tiny local area of the metal can be magnetised.  That large shiny, circular ‘plate’ of magnetic material is called the ‘platter’. It is divided into billions of tiny areas, each one capable of being magnetised (say to store a 1) or demagnetised (say to store a 0). Magnetism is used in computer storage because it goes on storing information even when the power is switched off. 

Flash drives a full of tiny transistors which can serve as switches having two positions: ‘on’ and ‘off’.   But whatever the organic basis of human memory, the information storage has to be vast, and the location and retrieval systems very powerful and rapid.

I will give you an example. If you are of a certain age, you might recall receiving news of US President John F Kennedy’s assassination on November 22nd, 1963. Or if you are not of a certain age, you might recall the circumstance in which you first heard of it.

OR: where were you when you first became aware that you existed?                              

AND/OR Do you remember learning to ride a bicycle for the first time free of trainer wheels or fussing adults?

Do you remember learning to walk? I do. Long before that memorable day I learned to ride my 2-wheeler bike, I was crawling around the floor of my parents’ rented house at 77 Woodward Ave, Strathfield, a suburb of Sydney. I hauled myself up and held onto the sofa, made it from the sofa to an armchair, and from there to a second armchair. For me, 78 years on, that is still a vivid memory. The year was 1940, in the month of December, which I worked out from the age my mother later told me that I was at the time: 8 months.                                                          

Or if such has never been of particular concern to you, please recall the name of your first pet dog or cat. (Mine was ‘Binka’, a mainly fox terrier ‘bitser’ dog; and a cross I am sure between 16 of the finest dogs and bitches from round the streets of Strathfield.)

We all have streams of memories: often trivia to others and just as often pretty vital and vivid stuff to us as individuals. Have I ever flown in a biplane? No. I cannot recall ever having done so; but that lack of memory is itself a memory ‘fact’. However, I have flown in other kinds of planes, the first one being a piston-engined, prop-driven  Lockheed Super-constellation in 1958, and the latest one being some Boeing job in the Virgin fleet. About a month ago, my wife Jenny and I flew across from Adelaide in it, and were met at the Canberra Airport by Jenny’s brother Stuart and his wife Anna. More facts fresh out of storage, which will fade I am sure, possibly, even probably, because the organic molecules and ions arguably used for their storage will be found other uses. But more on that below.

Hypnosis has been established as a means of retrieving memories long believed by their owner to be totally forgotten. That is also a fact I have encountered and memorised somehow. That fact and countless, probably millions, of other bits of trivial information are stored in me in some manner; presumably somewhere in my central nervous system, probably mainly in my brain, though perhaps the spinal cord and peripheral nerves play a role: hence the expression ‘muscle memory.’

If I was retrieving them and relaying them verbally to you, dear reader, then in all likelihood my speed of transmission would match your speed of reception and interpretation, because our two brains are constructed on similar lines. If you were a blue whale, a hummingbird, or say one of the Australian eastern brown snakes, living on the hill just up the street from my home here in Canberra, that can get about 5 deadly strikes in before you know about the first of them, there could be synchronisation problems.

Now, to return to the Kennedy assassination: I do recall my particular circumstances. I was living in my Great Aunt Sadie’s house in Fivedock, Sydney. (Aunt Sadie was in a nursing home nearby) and my (then) wife came wide-eyed into the room where I was with the news.

My response to her was half exclamation, half question. “What?!”

And I could not at first believe it. Today, I ask myself as well another ‘what‘ question: what happened in those last 5 seconds?  What happened when I remembered that event?

Or when I recall this extra little bit of information: Aunt Sadie was born in New York, but taken back to Scotland as a baby by her Scottish parents, where she learned to talk and had her early childhood. Later, after emigrating to Australia with her parents, she used to tell everyone with great enthusiasm in her pronounced Scots burr: “I’m a Yankee!”

As I recall, most found that very hard to believe.

Out of a huge quantity of trivia, Nature (not I) has somehow stored away inside my head, I have used whatever it was Nature gave me; have looked it up, gone to it, retrieved it and communicated it back to you, the reader of this, who uses as I do,  more or less, the same communication system (called the English language, and in that language often called in turn ‘remembrance of things past’).

And we can bring understanding of the symbols out of storage, and use that information to decode the symbols. So what happened, and how did Nature set us up to be able to do it; however it was that we did it? Because we not only have to retrieve the information, we have to understand the language used in the question, remembering what the words as used in their context, mean.

It is little wonder therefore that the human brain consumes (transforms, if you would prefer) energy at a surprising rate.

The brain makes up 2% of a person’s weight. Despite this, even at rest, the brain consumes 20% of the body’s energy. The brain consumes energy at 10 times the rate of the rest of the body per gram of tissue. The average power consumption of a typical adult is 100 Watts and the brain consumes 20% of this making the power of the brain 20 W.

The facts are:

  1. Memory can be vast in all of us: an unquantifiable collection of words, grammar rules, events and sensual experiences from the 5 fundamental senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch and balance.
  2. Recall is often rapid: of skills, words, past advice from others, of one’s own experiences and other categories of memory.
  3. Recent experience, if not out of the ordinary, is readily lost.
  4. First (remarkable) experiences are often long remembered and readily recalled.
  5. Some memories can only be recalled by suggestion and autosuggestion.

     So here is my tentative suggestion and by no means complete hypothesis on what takes place.                                                                                                                          

Memory storage needs a highly accessible ‘wall’ on which symbols of some kind can be drawn, and retrieved easily and efficiently without the librarian (you) having to plough through a mountain codexes (books and journal articles) of irrelevant stuff before arriving at what is sought. We need to be able to stand back, survey the whole store, and then go to the part we want.

The manner this storage was done from the earliest times through to the earliest civilisations is perhaps the model. Neanderthal art in Spain has been dated at 65,000 years BP, though the oldest Australian Aboriginal cave art is at 28,000 BP is also old by any standard.

Cave paintings gave way to hieroglyphics on interior walls of tombs, which in turn gave way to hieroglyphics on papyrus scrolls, those flattened and matted papyrus reeds from the Nile, and from which we derive the word paper. Papyrus (which I remember first learning about in my history class in my first year at high school) in turn gave way to cuneiform impressions made by styli on the surfaces of clay tablets, which gave way to alphabetic script (first developed by the Phoenicians) on animal skin and  parchment, and to ideograms (Chinese script.) on paper scrolls also.

Interestingly, when we read a book we don’t do it letter-by-letter as a beginning reader does ‘sounding it out’.  (‘The cat sat on the mat’ is my favourite.) Each word is read as a whole: ie as an ideogram. But where one needs about 3,000 characters to read a Chinese newspaper, 26 letters of the Roman alphabet is all it takes in English, provided it is correctly spelled.  Paw speling slos tha prozess dowen.

In other words, a book is a surface on which code can be written, scaled down from wall-size to something more convenient. So is microfilm. So is a computer flash drive or hard drive, because however it is stored electronically, that memory code is made visible and alterable and capable of being edited and added to by being displayed on a flat screen and hooked up via a computer to a keyboard.

(The first computer I ever owned was a Commodore CPM, with its Random Access Memory (RAM) upgraded from 16 kilobytes to an enormous 32 kilobytes.  Pathetic by today’s standards, but I just fished that fact out of somewhere in my head as well.)

So what might be the hard drive of the brain and the alterable and editable recording system of the mind dwelling within it? I assume that what we call the mind is based on vast memory of life history, events, words, phrases, quotable quotes, routinely extracted quotes and other expressions, photographs, sound recordings etc. In fact, ‘etc’ raised to the power of M, where M is a very large number.                                                                                                                          

I suggest the most likely candidate is one or (less likely) both of the protein surfaces of the cell membrane of the cerebral neurone, the both of which surfaces resemble somewhat the pile of a rather plush carpet.

One protein surface could serve for short-term memories, and the other for long-term ones, including operating system (culture, language etc) stuff. Importantly, protein molecules are electrically polar, each one having a more positive side and a more negative side, and so they have an affinity for that supreme polar solvent, water. (This can be confirmed by taking some of the protein gelatine, the main constituent of jelly crystals, dissolving it in hot water, and then allowing time for it to cool and form new inter-molecular bonds: a process know as ‘setting’ in jelly preparation, and which can be reversed simply by re-heating the jelly.) Because amino acid and protein molecules are polar, they also have affinity for positively charged ions (ions being charged atoms or groups of atoms.)

The molecular polarity arises from the fact that the amino acid groups making up the structure of the protein molecule contain highly electronegative oxygen (as  –COOH ) on one side and less electronegative nitrogen (as  – NH2 ) on the other.

There is evidence that hyponatremia (sodium deficiency) affects memory in rats, which fits the above.

Positive ions possibly play a role as the hieroglyphs of memory: one possibility is that monovalent sodium and potassium ions (Na+ and K+) so common in nerve and brain tissue and chemistry swap places, with other enzyme molecules doing the swapping.

Or, a monovalent Na+ or K+ ion could be replaced with a divalent Mg2+ or Ca2+ ion, creating a local area of the protein ‘carpet’ of enhanced positivity.

Our protein molecules can possibly be stored ‘wrong side out’ until required for a memory. So they can be turned and stored ‘right side in’ where they will be needed: in association with local potassium-sodium ion combinations. In other words, they have the potential to act like changeable tiles in a mosaic; with a reading mechanism.

A dot matrix like a TV screen can present ‘information’ in “pixels per inch (or pixels per centimeter) can also describe the resolution, in pixels, of an image file. A 100×100 pixel image printed in a 1 inch square has a resolution of 100 pixels per inch. … Industry standard, good quality photographs usually require 300 pixels per inch, at 100% size…” ( )

Thus a TV or computer screen could function like the wall of an Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb to store information; with a suitable playback or readback mechanism or device. Actually, the image is a bit like the ‘positive’ created from the ‘negative’ of an old black-and-white film. Except the ‘negative’ can be considered as an electronic master recording of data, subsequently sent to the TV screen to form the array of illuminated dots that make up the picture or screen image.

Eukaryotic cells are those with their genetic material in chromosomes contained within distinct cell nuclei. The ‘central dogma’ of eukaryote genetics is that genes express themselves through the production of enzyme molecules, which are complex and specific catalysts for the production of proteins. The code embedded in the genes of the nuclear DNA is read as a master plan for the production of enzyme molecules, which in turn act as templates for the production of proteins. The principle is simple: one gene, one enzyme.

Once the proteins are in place in the cell membrane, they can conceivably be read back by the same or similar enzymes and so function in their own way as a code. Thus the eukaryote cell can have at least two functioning systems of information storage:

1. What we might call ‘Ancestral data’ In the ancestral DNA and

2. What we might call ‘Individual data’ in the proteins constructed from information in that DNA and then modified through individual use.

Individual data storage in the brain can also be likened to the books in a library. A lifetime is spent adding to and reading the collection, which can in my experience, finish up rather vast. Most of it is ‘forgotten’ until needed, then simple passage of time brings the book containing the data from the stacks. For example, apart from the recalls of mine I have cited so far, yesterday I had occasion to recall a remark made by a member of the Rolling Stones (a band incidentally whose music does not interest me much) but it was in answer years ago to a journalist’s question as to why no songwriter in the band wrote political songs.  The answer came along the lines of “it’s a bit hard to get too worked up about Ted Heath, mate.” Ted Heath, you will possibly recall, was British Prime Minister. As I recalled, that remark was made by Mick Taylor. And a day or so later I recalled the name. It was Keith Richard. Not Mick Taylor, as I had previously thought.

So what, I ask myself, happened there?

I suggest something may have happened fairly quickly at the protein layer on its inside surface on the cell membrane of one or many of the neurones in my brain, with the much smaller glial cells perhaps having an intermediary messenger role.

ALL I WOULD CONCLUDE FROM THIS is that in the protein-lipid-protein layers of the cell membranes of the CNS neurones, there is enormous potential for information (ie memory) storage; and that those proteins are involved in memory would help explain the ready accessibility of a vast array of information and data stored in the human memory; the possible physical and/or structures in which it is based being apparently housed within the brain. Moreover, the storage is as intimately associated with the central nervous system as it is possible to be.

Note that in reading the above paragraph, you have been rapidly accessing your memory however recorded to retrieve the meanings of all the words in the sequence in which they are written. Change the order, and you change the meaning: as in ‘the mat sat on the cat’.

We have seen that the total internal area of the cerebral neurones is found my multiplying the average length of a neurone by the number of them:

.Aneuron cell membrane  = av neurone diameter x total length of neurones ( 850 x 106 m = 2.12 x 103 m2)

                             = 3.14 x 10-6 m x 850 x 106 m = 2.12 x 103 m2

                             = 2,669 m2

This in turn would be an area sufficient to accommodate  around 2 x 1021  protein molecules, ( Np  = 46 / 10-9 x 46 / 10-9  = 2119 x 1018 ,~ 2 x 1021 ) each protein molecule being made up of a combination of amino acid groups of atoms, of which amino acids there are 20 varieties for Nature to use in the recording of memory, and into which memory coding could be set.

But I would contend, at least at this point in time, that synaptic changes and/or fresh neurone connections need not be and are probably not involved. Memory can rather be likened to the switching yard in a major railway terminus, such as the Eveleigh Yards in Sydney. My contention is that the configuration of the points, while essential for getting the right carriages onto the right siding, is not likely to be what memory is stored as or in. Nor is it in the trains, freight cars, crates and boxes stacked within them, whatever their nervous system analogues might be. The points and switching gear is a means to that end, and quite likely, no more.

On this analogy, the surface on which information would be written to be stored as writing, would be that of the rails themselves. Each length of standard Australian rail has a lateral perimeter of 0.730 m (I measured that myself on a small length of standard railway line.) We can calculate the diameter of a pipe with that circumference as follows:

C = πd

Divide both sides by π to retain the = sign:

          Therefore d = C/π

                               = 0.730 m/ 3.1415927

                               = 0.232 m, which is 23.2 cm.

Each rail is part of a national rail system totalling in 2018  33,200 km of track,  or 3.32 x 107 m, each track consisting of two rails, so 66,400 km (6.64.x 107 m) of rail in all, thus with a total surface area of track of

6.64.x 107 m x 0.730 m = 4.85 x 107 m2 = 48.5 km2 = 7km x 7km approx.

That is equivalent to a 23.2 cm (~ 1 foot) diameter pipe extending for 66,400 km: a huge surface area of steel for graffiti artists to get to work on, compared with what they could do for their public information cause by playing about with points and switches. Points and switches or rails of whatever size and overall length, and written on in whatever size of print; if the print size is of a constant proportion to the pipe diameter, it will make no difference. Pipe surface area will always provide far more information storage than will settings of points and switches, even if the latter cover the whole 7km x 7km (approx.) area. 

And as there are 106 m2 in every km2, in an area of 48.5 km2 , that is almost exactly one million times the internal area of the cerebral neurones.  But the ‘hieroglyphs’ written in the proteins are far smaller still. If our railway graffiti artist were to paint slogans in letters 1 m high on carriages, they would be 108 times too big. Again, taking each protein molecule as being 10 nm across  (1 nanometre = 10-9 m). As we have seen above, the number of protein molecules available for the hieroglyphs of memory is

Np  = 46 / 10-9 x 46 / 10-9  = 2,500 x 1018

      ~ 2.5 x 1021

Written out in longhand, that is 2,500,000,000,000,000,000,000 nice large (as molecules go) protein molecules.  On average.  In every human head on Earth.

Again, taking each protein molecule as being 10 nm across  (1 nanometre = 10-9 m), and the diameter of the neurone  it forms part of as one one millionth of a metre or 1/1,000,000 m, then

                                    Protein molecular diameter = 10 x 10-9 m  = 10-8 m,

                                    Neurone diameter                 = 10-6 m

             then protein diameter / neuron diameter  = 10-8 m / 10-6

                                                                                   =  1/100

Therefore the ‘lettering’ on the pipe representing the neurone axon will be 1/100 of the diameter of the pipe, whatever that diameter may be. This gives considerable scope for the storing of a huge amount of information in the protein layer which makes up most of the vast total of the internal surfaces of the neurones of the brain: of any animal capable of memory of experience past.



REFERENCES: 1. General

Davies, Paul, The Demon in the Machine, Allen Lane, UK, 2019.

Dennettt, Daniel C., Consciouness Explained; Penguin, England, 1991.

Tortora, Gerard J. and Anagnostakos, Nicholas P., Principles of Anatomy and Physiology, 5th Ed., Harper and RowPublishers, NY, 1987.


REFERENCES, 2. In order of citation in the text              

memory, organic basis …  

Eccles , Sir John ;

neurone cell membrane

neurone numbers                 


neurone dimensionsThe Human Brain in Numbers: A Linearly Scaled-up Primate Brain

neurone diameter 

nerve fibres total length   

 neurone membrane

brain, power consumption

cave art

proteins, neurone  

hyponatremia in rats

pixel density    


Posted in Natural Science by Ian MacDougall on December 26, 2014

DSCN1746We know where and how to hunt Alaska brown bears and our sucess [sic] at taking big bears shows it.


Mileur’s Guide Service, Alaska.

From their website:

Management of the harvest of Kodiak bears is currently based primarily on population assessments and regulation of sport hunting. With a healthy population of bears on the archipelago, the emphasis has been on maintaining a stable bear population that will  sustain an annual harvest of 150 bears, composed of at least 60 percent males.

Just inside the entrance to Departures at the Anchorage International Airport, Alaska, there stands a large case of thick perspex. (Perhaps it is glass – I was in a bit of a hurry.)

Inside the case stands the stuffed hide, suitably mounted on a realistic rock-like platform, of a magnificent Kodiak bear. Kodiak Island is 160 km long and of area 9,300 sq km, and is the largest island in the Kodiak Archipelago on the south coast of Alaska.

Also inside the case is a photo taken of the bear shortly after it was shot. It lies in what appears to be a dry creek bed, with the presumed and clearly proud shooter sitting behind it.


A small placard gives some additional information:

May 5th, 1996

Shot by Kenneth M Aberle, D.D.S., M.S.  [ie Doctor of Dental Surgery; Master of Science – IM.]

Male 9.4 years.

Wt 1,300 – 1,500 lb.

Taxidermist: Bret’s Wildlife Artistry, Willow, Alaska.

The services of Bret’s Wildlife Artistry, Willow, Alaska probably did not come cheap. How much public money was spent on this exhibit by either the airport or the government, I have no idea, but I suspect it was not much. More likely, the exhibit is a generous and proud donation to the airport’s interior décor by Kenneth M Aberle, D.D.S., M.S.


Neither have we any way of determining the degree of personal risk taken by Kenneth M Aberle, D.D.S., M.S, and please understand that it could have been anything between trivial and considerable, depending on the exact circumstances. The Kodiak bear, Ursus arctos middendorffi, is the largest subspecies of Ursus arctos, and the grizzly bear: Ursus arctos horribilis is another. Apart from the polar bear Ursus maritimus, the grizzly is without doubt the most aggressive and dangerous of all the North American bear species. Shooting at one, even from a distance and using a high-powered rifle with a telescopic sight, can still land a shooter in a heap of trouble: well, in principle anyway.

In 2007, Alaska had an officially estimated 30,000 brown bears state-wide. Of these, about 1,900 were shot (the wholesome-sounding euphemism is ‘harvested’) in the hunting season. Though every now and then a careless hunter gets harvested by a bear, human hunters pose far more of a danger to bears than bears do to humans.

Kodiak bears are a unique subspecies of the brown or grizzly bear… They live exclusively on the islands in the Kodiak Archipelago and have been isolated from other bears for about 12,000 years.

 There are about 3,500 Kodiak bears; a density of about 0.7 bears per square mile.

 Kodiak bear populations are healthy and productive. They enjoy relatively pristine habitat and well managed fish populations. In most areas the number of bears is stable, but there are some places where bear density is increasing.

Of that 30,000 total Alaskan brown bear population, about 15,000 will be male and the same number female. There are restrictions on the killing of females (‘sows’). Male bears (‘boars’) are more highly prized as trophies by the hunting brotherhood; the bigger, the better. So the majority of those shot can be assumed to be male, just like the one ‘harvested’ by Kenneth M Aberle, D.D.S., M.S.

That gives us a rough mortality rate for Alaskan grizzlies of say 1,500 / 15,000 per year, or 10%: about four bears are shot every day, on average. Statistically, as we shall see, few can get to die of old age. Their maximum life expectancy? The oldest known wild Kodiak bear was a sow 35 years old. The oldest known boar was 27 years old. As the maximum weight of Kodiak bears as cited by the government is up to 1,300 lb, Aberle’s specimen at “1,300 – 1,500 lb” was truly a whopper. And it was in the prime of its life.

For the fraternity of bear hunters, and all others interested, Kenneth M Aberle, D.D.S., M.S has obligingly supplied some details of the ammunition he used. It is on the placard in the glass case along with the other information. Take it for granted that the mass, velocity and gauge of his bullet was adequate for the task of turning the bear, over however many seconds, minutes, hours or even days, from a virile and healthy young animal into the collapsed bag of pelt, meat, bones and offal shown in the photo. The exhibit gives no information on the time taken for this bear to die, but many no doubt are injured by bullets but get away none the less.

An estimated 100,000 black bears (Ursus americanus) also inhabit Alaska. Statewide, and between 2003 and 2007, the annual ‘harvest’ of this species increased steadily from about 2,500 to 3,250 bears. But modern bear hunting is only potentially dangerous. Far more hunters survive an encounter with a bear than the other way around. But bears are not the most dangerous big game. That honour seems to go to the cape buffalo, an animal that will take to stalking the hunter at the drop of a hat, particularly if wounded.

However I did hear a story (retold second hand from a friend) from a big game hunter, in whose opinion the most dangerous animal was the male wild pig, ie original wild boar. It lives in dense vegetation or rainforest understorey, and in those conditions, it is only a matter of three seconds between the time he breaks cover and when he’s got you; with tusks that can rip you open as if you were a wet paper bag. That means you have three seconds to locate him, take aim, and get your shot away; probably not to be followed by a second one.

The preferred weapon, according to this source, is a large bore (preferably 12 gauge) shotgun, and the preferred ammunition is not a standard shotgun cartridge, but one loaded with a single slug: a cylinder of lead about 1 inch (24 mm) long and of diameter to neatly fit the shotgun bore.

AcuTip Slug – solid lead bullets for shotgun use. These are big, heavy, fat hunks of soft lead that have enormous stopping power (e.g. a typical 12 gauge slug is .73″ caliber and weighs 438 grains* – a 9mm bullet is .355″ and 115 grains).

  *(1 grain = 64.799 milligrams, so the slug would weigh 28.4 g: about 60% of the mass of a golf ball, but packed into only one sixteenth of the golf ball’s volume..– IM)

Kodiak bears are remarkably uniform genetically, but not absolutely so. In 1912, the volcano Novarupta, which is 160 km northwest of Kodiak Island staged a one month long eruption, which is held to be the largest eruption in the 20th century. (The largest eruption in recorded history appears to have been the 1883 eruption of the Krakatoa volcano in Indonesia, and the second-largest that of the Santorini volcano in the Mediterranean, circa 1,500 BC, which put an end to the Minoan civilisation.)

Wildlife on Kodiak Island was decimated by ash and acid rain from the eruption. Bears and other large animals were blinded by thick ash and many starved to death because large numbers of plants and small animals were smothered in the eruption. Birds blinded and coated by volcanic ash fell to the ground. Even the region’s prolific mosquitoes were exterminated. Aquatic organisms in the region perished in the ash-clogged waters. Salmon, in all stages of life, were destroyed by the eruption and its aftereffects. From 1915 to 1919, southwestern Alaska’s salmon-fishing industry was devastated.

That event just over 100 years ago could only have acted as a massive genetic bottleneck or selector, on the wildlife, including of course, the Kodiak bears.

Today hunters kill about 180 Kodiak bears each year under tightly controlled regulations. About 5,000 resident hunters apply each year for a chance at the 496 bear permits that are available for them. Hunters who are not residents of Alaska must hire a professional guide, paying $10,000 – $21,000 per hunt. Over 70% of the Kodiak bears killed by hunters are males. (ie around 135 boars pa- IM)

If there are 3,500 Kodiak bears and around 50% of them are male, the boar population will be around 1,750. If we take the ‘harvest’ rate as being 135 boars per year, then a given boar’s probability of not being shot in any given year, expressed as a percentage, is (1,750 – 135) / 1,750 x 100, = 92%. This of course, is an annual hunting kill, or cull rate, of 8%.

With each passing year, each surviving boar is pushing his luck just a bit further: 8% further, to be more precise. The probability (ps) after the passage of n years, that any given boar will have been shot, assuming all other factors are equal, is given by the equation:

ps = 1 – (92/100)n

As the years go by and the value of n steadily increases, the value of (92/100)n tends towards zero, and the value of ps, the probability of the boar being shot, tends towards 1: that is, towards certainty. For example, after 8 years,

ps = 1 – (92/100)n

= 1 – (92/100)8

= 1 – 0.51

= 0.49,

which means that the boar will have a 50% chance of still being alive, and half its contemporaries born in the same year will have been shot. After 16 years, that chance will have decreased to 26% and after 32 years to 0.07%. Of the original 1,750, only

1,750 x 0.07/100

= 1.225

~ 1

will still be alive. But precisely which one?

For an important factor has been left out of the above equation. Though boars are more desirable than are sows to the trophy-minded hunting population, all boars are not equally so. Some, like the unfortunate individual harvested by Kenneth M Aberle, D.D.S., M.S, have characteristics which make them a particularly desirable compensation for the US$10,000 – $21,000 which has to be stumped up by the non-Alaskan hunter for the shooting of them. They are large, in the prime of life, and with fur, face and hide that has not been marred through losing fights with other boars. They are the winners in the Alaskan struggle for existence. Because they have been the outstanding survivors of their species, they are the fittest. Charles Darwin would have undoubtedly agreed.

Thus the culling process carried out by the likes of Kenneth M Aberle, D.D.S., M.S, is the diametric opposite of that carried out by any competent livestock breeder on a breeding population of domestic animals, or by nature herself on wild populations. As the years roll by, the effect of all the rifle-toting hunters can only be in favour of a genetic drift in the population: a weeding-out of those with nature’s most desirable and vital characteristics, and selecting in those with the least desirable, from a bear-survival point of view.

There is another distinct possibility here as well. North American bears do not actively seek out and stalk the men hunting them the way cape buffalo reportedly do. But any bears with this aggressive inclination would arguably have better survival chances and leave more progeny than the more shy and elusive of their kind. The hunters might just be selecting this type of bear into the population.

One possible way the hunters can avoid contributing to this outcome is for them to select the smallest, scruffiest and most beaten-up of youngest boars for their ($10,000+) trophies: something I suspect they would be reluctant to do.

The genetic drift will be somewhat glacial in its pace, enabling each generation of hunters to reach its dotage averring that over their entire hunting careers, the target populations have remained of constant apparent quality. But it will happen, because by its very nature, the selection process carried out by the likes of Kenneth M Aberle, D.D.S., M.S. is non-random.

So what is achieved by the shooting of bears? There are millions of gun owners in America, and a huge number are active shooters of wildlife. Shooting at living animals clearly provides these people with a satisfaction not to be had from shooting at trees, targets nailed to them, bottles on posts and such. The preferred target is a living animal whose remains can be dressed in some way to provide a conversation piece for the hunter’s den. And the bigger, the better. Size clearly matters. The head of a rabbit preserved and mounted by an outfit with the skills of Bret’s Wildlife Artistry, Willow, Alaska and hung up on the wall of the shooter’s den would clearly not be good enough: at least, not enough to start up the right kind of conversation. Not when one can have the head of say, a moose, caribou, wolf, bear or cougar in its place.

Don’t get me wrong. I am also a gun owner, and I occasionally shoot a fox, rabbit, injured kangaroo or other wildlife, and livestock injured beyond recovery. Foxes and rabbits do serious damage to Australian native wildlife, and do not belong in the landscape. I am not at all worried about their genetic future, as they are great survivors back where they came from, and I think that it was a great mistake to introduce them to Australia. They should be eliminated, and as humanely as possible..

But as a teenager, I found considerable satisfaction in a day’s rabbit hunting. Sometimes I think that perhaps we males of the species Homo sapiens have an innate bloodlust very important for survival in our hunter-gatherer past. The same sort of response can be seen when a well fed dog takes off after a cat or rabbit on sight and impulse. It does not need to do it, yet it does it.

So what has been achieved by the killing of this particular bear? Most important I suppose, Kenneth M Aberle, D.D.S., M.S has had a big boost to his own self-image (ie his ego), and the satisfaction of having taken on a dangerous animal on terms he might persuade himself were equal. But even if we count that as a positive, we are left with little else. I have no doubt that some hunters will claim that their activity is good for the bear population as a whole, and for the species through prevention of overpopulation. But the hide cannot last say, a human lifetime, not even if expertly preserved by America’s most competent taxidermist and kept away from the air inside a sealed glass case. Not even if it impresses hordes of airline passengers and tourists. Ask yourself: how many leather articles you own that are 50 years old? 100 years old? Even 10 years old?

Wood preserves far better than does leather. The oldest wooden artifact that I have ever personally been in contact with is an oak table from Shakespeare’s time that an antique-collector friend bought in England and had shipped out here to Australia, and at an expense so great she would not disclose it. But over the 400 years or so since the Immortal Bard  might have supped at it, slow dry rot has left the table’s wood scarcely harder than balsa.

As for wooden tables, so too for stuffed bears. Sadly, in a couple of generations’ time, Aberle’s prize bear will probably have to be replaced by a fresh, and likely somewhat inferior, specimen. Because that is the way both decay and selection work in nature.

Kenneth M Aberle, D.D.S., M.S, and his fellow hunters could avoid this outcome by putting their rifles, telescopic sights and ammunition into permanent storage, and reverting to the bear-harvesting techniques practiced by their ancestors earlier on in the Iron Age. They could hunt bears with nothing more dangerous than spears and knives.

They have a precedent to follow. Amongst the native Alaskan Tlingit people, a young man wanting to pass his initiation test and be accepted into manhood had to do something far more difficult than look through the telescopic sight of a high powered rifle at a distant bear, then let fly a pellet of lead with a squeeze of the trigger, and then make himself available for a photo opportunity afterwards.

He had to cover one of his hands with the fine dry dusty spores produced by a certain local species of bracket fungus, sneak up on a wild deer, and leave his palm print clearly visible on its side. After which, he was not only accepted into the company of Tlingit hunters, he was accepted as a man amongst men.

But try that trick on a Kodiak bear, other than maybe one in deepest hibernation, and you will be harvested. London to a brick.

Far better, therefore, to leave the selecting and harvesting to Nature.



The Serpent’s Most Popular Pages

Posted in History, Human Biology, Natural Science, Political Economy by Ian MacDougall on December 17, 2010

Carbon Abatement Submission (Senate Inquiry) Condensed

Though air temperatures whether local or worldwide, daily or annual average, may for various reasons not reflect it, the world is none the less clearly warming. It is now possible to fulfill Lord Franklin’s dream and sail the Northwest Passage over the top of Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific, at least for one month or so in the Northern summer. Possibly within the next ten years ships will be able drop anchor in an essentially ice-free Arctic Ocean, right at the North Pole. That together with the satellite altimetry data on sea levels  testifies to the rapidity of global warming, and of the onset of the positive feedback loops that can only further accelerate it. The safest assumption we can make, in short, is that we face a planetary climate emergency, requiring urgent economic reforms on a comparable scale to those which took place in Australia after the declaration of war in 1939…



Kangaroos, Thylacines and Aborigines 1

As in other areas of human history, inference is needed for the Aboriginal past not only because there are controversial and politically sensitive areas, but because the documentary record alone is insufficient for sound judgement one way or another. While some might find certain inferences to be politically (and mythologically) attractive, on close inspection they turn out to be too improbable for acceptance. Such, I argue, is the case with Keith Windschuttle’s thesis on the demise of the Tasmanians, which he applies also to explain the declines of the mainland populations, namely that the bulk of it was the unintended consequence of introduced diseases, rather than the intended consequence of deliberate frontier violence…



Kangaroos, Thylacines and Aborigines 2

Beside European settlement, agriculture, rainfall and temperature, there is another, related distribution. It is that of the present day distribution of speakers of indigenous languages, mainly found today beyond the Europale. It shows that wherever Europeans settled, the native languages died out. The unavoidable conclusion is that conditions inside the Europale increasingly militated against aboriginal children learning their ancestral language in the process of growing up…

The language decline correlates with the dilution of the aboriginal indigenous gene pool, as increasing numbers of people who describe themselves as Aborigines find themselves acknowledging, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, one or more Europeans in their ancestry…



Kangaroos, Thylacines and Aborigines 3

The British perception was that the macropods were wild in the country and belonged to nobody. The ecological reality of Tasmania and elsewhere was that the biomass of available grass and herbage in any one period of time could feed a related biomass of herbivores only up to a limit, which in turn could support a limited biomass of omnivorous humans, their dogs and a net population of wild carnivores. The latter included dingoes on the mainland, where they had displaced thylacines; thylacines in Tasmania, and also the Tasmanian Aborigines’ dogs (gone feral) as the aboriginal populations crashed. Settlers everywhere in Australia honoured these principles every time they set about clearing the bush to make way for grass; ‘clearing off’ kangaroos and emus to make way for sheep, cattle or crops, and clearing off Aborigines to make way for themselves…



Kangaroos, Thylacines and Aborigines 4

…Windschuttle’s Australia is one where the Aborigines went quietly to their fate as fringe dwellers of the country towns, and in marked contrast to their aboriginal counterparts in the Americas and New Zealand.

If there was no ‘warfare’ of whatever category involved in this transition, then the attendant and marked depopulation of the countryside and Aboriginal population decline can only be due to starvation and/or disease. Windschuttle won’t have starvation, but at the same time there are problems with the disease hypothesis that beg for a remedy, an explanation, or at the very least, a Band-Aid: which leaves warfare of some kind hanging around in the background.

And so we come to the elephant in the parlour of Aboriginal history…



Night Vision and Bipedalism

This raises the intriguing possibility that before the discovery of fire and the invention of the thorn-fenced kraal, our distant African ancestors attained their relatively longer legs by wading, swimming and climbing for shelter at night up or down rocky cliffs, bluffs and outcrops, where long non-grasping legs provide no great disadvantage. For the climbing of trees, they do. Getting to where the predators cannot reach you makes poor night vision less of a disadvantage…



Plimer’s Climatology 101

Plimer says that nothing humans do can affect the climate of the whole Earth, and that if it is warming, it is a good thing anyway.  Others disagree, and contend that climate change is occurring because of CO2 emissions. These latter were not put into the air for the purpose of warming the planet. Like the radioactive waste from the nuclear industry, they are a by product of another project entirely, to be justified after the fact…

More >>>


Plimer’s Climatology 102

At a point in the long distant past someone extracted what was found to be useful fuel from a coal outcrop, and the coal industry was born. Only since the work of Arrhenius in the late 19thC have questions arisen about the basing of the steel, power generation and other industries upon it. Established industry has understandably reacted to the IPCC reports and scientific concern about greenhouse gases with counter-argument and delaying tactics regarding the transition to alternatives. Ian Plimer’s book and his talk to the Sydney Mining Club talk are best seen in this context…

More >>>


Plimer’s Climatology 103

The total yearly biomass production of the organisms on Earth is on one estimate at around 170 billion tonnes (164 billion tons)  of which a third is oceanic and two thirds terrestrial: say 60 billion tonnes oceanic. Assuming this roughly to be 10% of the total oceanic biomass brings the total mass of all marine organisms to 600 billion tonnes, or 600 Gt. The potential total CO2 addition to the hydrosphere of 4210 Gt (assuming it all finishes up in the oceans) is thus about 7 times the total biomass in the oceans. That is indeed significant…

More >>>


Plimer’s Climatology 104

…a two degree rise due to CO2 will produce a further two degree rise due to water vapour, making four degrees in all. The next domino to fall in this situation is the methane, locked up in arctic permafrost in Siberia and Northern Canada, and below the deep ocean floors as methane hydrates. In all those locations, it has built up from slow bacterial decomposition of organic matter. Methane is 45 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as CO2, to which it oxidizes in about a year after release to the air. The warming produced by this gas may in turn release the final nightmare gas, hydrogen sulfide. Plimer does not mention these potentially disastrous knock-on effects of methane and hydrogen sulfide…

More >>>


Plimer’s Climatology 105: Lord Franklin’s Dream Turned Nightmare

Pope aside, there’s no need to ask which embodiments of human stupidity Plimer might have had in mind. He has spent the preceding 483 pages denouncing them: ‘activists’, ‘environmentalists’, Greenpeace… but above all, Sir Nicholas Stern, Michael Mann, James Hansen, Al Gore, Ross Garnaut; other practitioners of the alleged quackery and pseudoscience of climatology, the IPCC, the Royal Society, the signers of the Kyoto Accord… If the book’s index was any good I could look them all up.

But that is only half of the last sentence. I have an uneasy feeling that behind the rest of it lies the profound theological thought that there will be no runaway greenhouse or climate catastrophe, because God will not allow it.



Plimer’s Climatology 106: His Lordship’s List

At the end of his book, Ian Plimer hands over the keyboard to his lordship to deal with the question ‘What if I am wrong?’ In Plimer’s view Monckton (previously an economic adviser to Margaret Thatcher) had already dealt with it splendidly in a speech to the Local Government Association at Bournemouth, on 3 July 2008. So Plimer reproduces the speech in its entirety (with his lordship’s permission) on pages 489-493 of Heaven+Earth. We can take as noted the usual ‘ITS?’ (is that so?) in the margin against each one of the following points as they occur, and as well a ‘WIIFY?’ –  an abbreviated form of ‘what’s in it for you?’


Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

Good Planets are Hard to Come By

Posted in Natural Science, Political Economy by Ian MacDougall on February 7, 2010



GUEST POST: Good Planets are Hard to Come By – Andrew Glikson

ANU Earth and paleoclimate scientist Andrew Glikson puts an extraordinary amount of effort, well above and beyond the call of duty, into keeping the rest of us informed on the science behind the global warming issue.

The Earth’s climate system is commonly likened to a supertanker, meaning that in order to avoid disaster later in the 21st Century, we have to start turning the wheel now. Unfortunately there is a political problem in this, because the short-term interests of many in politics and business demand all ahead full.  –IM



 As sea level rises the planet is drowning in an ocean of untruths

 Andrew Glikson

Earth and paleoclimate scientist, Australian National University

We’re simply talking about the very life support system of this planet.  (Joachim Schellnhuber, Director, Potsdam Climate Impacts Institute, advisor to the German government.)

The sleep of reason produces monsters (Francisco Goya)

While Earth is undergoing a sixth mass extinction in its history, dominated by oxidation of hundreds of billion tons of carbon derived from fossil ancient biospheres, with consequent shift in the state of the atmosphere-ocean-cryosphere system, the feeble efforts of civilization to mitigate the climate is drowning in medieval conspiracy theories aimed against climate scientists by vested interests and fundamentalist man-over-nature ideologues.

The release of more than 320 billion tons of carbon (GtC) from buried early biospheres, adding more than one half of the original carbon inventory of the atmosphere (~590 GtC) to the atmosphere-ocean system, has triggered a fundamental shift in the state of the atmosphere at a rate of 2 ppm CO2/year, a pace unprecedented in the geological record with the exception of the effects of CO2 released from craters excavated by large asteroid impacts.

Read on >>>

Are Denialists in Denial?

Posted in Natural Science, Political Economy by Ian MacDougall on November 19, 2009

                                                                                                                                                                                      November 19, 2009

It is clear from these various facts, therefore, that a warmer planet than today’s is far from unusual. It is also clear that climate changes naturally all the time. The idea that is implicit in much public discussion of the global warming issue – that climate was stable (or constant) prior to the industrial revolution, after which human emissions have rendered it unstable – is simply fanciful. Change is what climate does.

Bob Carter, ‘Knock, Knock: Where is the Evidence for Dangerous Human-Caused Global Warming?’

The reader will recall that Faust, in Goethe’s play of the same name, was offered a deal by the Devil: a life of every pleasure imaginable in return for his soul. The deal was accepted, and became the classic a metaphor for shortsightedness; and subsequently the basis of one of the funniest films ever made: Bedazzled, featuring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.

I try to avoid shortsightedness, but three times in my life I have found myself in the related condition of extreme denial: the result in each case of receiving serious bad news affecting me personally. Confronted with an elephant in the parlour, in the shape of an elephantine tragedy, one looks around it, over the top of it, and anywhere but at it. On each occasion, I started looking for whatever scant threads there were of hope. My conclusion from these experiences is that living in denial and hope is about the most futile state of existence there is, but we do it on occasions because at the time there appears to be no better alternative. Added in is the fact that acceptance of an apparently dismal reality can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So hope, furious, fervent and all too often futile, springs eternal.

Are those like Bob Carter, who deny that there is anthropogenic global warming (AGW) going on in this state of being in denial? (Read all you might want of their reasoning at Quadrant Online.)

Up to a point, we believe what we want to believe. This applies particularly to ideas which are in themselves beyond the scope of rationality and science, such as the propositions of the major religions; though devotees seeking consolation and grounds for hope in them also deny that this is the case.

I stumbled upon this issue thanks to the ABC Four Corners program Malcolm and the Malcontents,  put to air in Australia on Monday November 9, 2009. That dealt with the battle within the Liberal-National Coalition between AGW denialists and those who take a more alarmist and at the same time, truly conservative approach. It is tearing the Coalition apart and so ruining its electoral prospects. Their problem: how to deal with the Rudd Government’s policy on climate change. Then I happened to read George Monbiot’s Why the sudden surge in climate change denial? Could it be about something else altogether? published in the Guardian on November 2. It begins on the pessimistic note

There is no point in denying it: we’re losing. Climate change denial is spreading like a contagious disease. It exists in a sphere which cannot be reached by evidence or reasoned argument; any attempt to draw attention to scientific findings is greeted with furious invective. This sphere is expanding with astonishing speed.

Be that as it may.

Denialists are divided on what they deny. Most in my reading experience assert that the Earth is cooling, not warming, but add that whatever it is doing, humans cannot possibly be responsible. So if there must be GW, they want no A associated with it. But while I and many of my alarmist co-thinkers would be only too happy if they turned out to be right, we are not prepared to stake the lives of our children and grandchildren on it. By advocating a do-nothing policy with respect to CO2 emissions, the denialists finish up doing just that. This inevitably involves a dismissal or explaining away of evidence to the contrary. So they:

  1. look for flaws in the evidence on which AGW alarmism is based; and when I say ‘the evidence’ I mean all  the evidence. None of it can be allowed to pass;
  2. have to assert that any global warming detected post 1750 is purely natural, and part of a solar or other cycle or phenomenon.
  3. erect a straw man, then proceed to knock it down. (See the quote above from the prominent denialist Bob Carter. Does he seriously assert that the people raising the loudest alarm in the ‘public discussion’ – ie the bulk of the world’s climatologists – believe that the global climate only began to change after 1750 AD?)
  4. deny any useful role for computer models of climate;
  5. dismiss alarmist scientists for allegedly having venal motives, and being unable to see beyond their next  research grant. Given the extraordinary weight of scientific opinion now standing against the denialist case, this amounts to a full-blown conspiracy theory.
  6. dismiss any suggestion that they could have such motives themselves, or be influenced by any connections of individuals in their ranks to the fossil fuel industry;
  7. dismiss the Precautionary Principle or any sort of approach based on it as ill-advised;
  8. deny even the remotest possibility of runaway greenhouse establishing;
  9. assert (with Senator Nick Minchin et al) that AGW alarmism arises from the extreme left of politics; left causeless at the end of the Cold War;
  10. deny that anything humans do either way can possibly have any significant effect on the world’s climate;
  11. welcome the prospect a warmer Earth, arguing that our species only really got going in the last 10,000 years, after the retreat of the Pleistocene glaciers;
  12. assert that apart from its allegedly negligible greenhouse effect, carbon dioxide can have no significant effect on life in the oceans when it dissolves in water to form carbonic acid.
  13. admit of no possibility of their being wrong;
  14. nor admit of any serious consequence if they are wrong, particularly if their do-nothing approach has meanwhile become state policy.

Accordingly, every bit of data on which the alarmist case is based must in turn be challenged, leading the denialists to argue that:

  1. the last 100 years of thermometer-based surface temperature data is unreliable, thanks largely to the ‘urban heat island effect’ by which urban recording stations are influenced by waste heat from industry and automobiles, and the solar radiation absorbed and re-emitted by buildings and roads.
  2. at the same time, what little reliable data there is indicates that the Earth is cooling;
  3. as the ‘greenhouse effect’ of atmospheric CO2 diminishes logarithmically, from here on added CO2 will have minimal effect anyway (say perhaps raise average temperature by 0.1 degree Celsius.)
  4. the Precautionary Principle would actually have us keep on with business as usual, for by that principle, CO2 and other emissions must be assumed innocent until proven guilty.
  5. the complexity of the global weather system, and the difficulties implicit in attempts to isolate the effect of any one component (eg anthropogenic CO2 vs ‘natural’ CO2) are a point in favour of their do-nothing case.

Their use of such arguments, and their tendency to close association with the political Right, have not deterred major world scientific organizations and many governments from urging strong action at the forthcoming Copenhagen summit. One such is the Letter from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to the US Senate (link) which says to each US senator:

As you consider climate change legislation, we, as leaders of scientific organizations, write to state the consensus scientific view. Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science. Moreover, there is strong evidence that ongoing climate change will have broad impacts on society, including the global economy and on the environment. For the United States, climate change impacts include sea level rise for coastal states, greater threats of extreme weather events, and increased risk of regional water scarcity, urban heat waves, western wildfires, and the disturbance of biological systems throughout the country. The severity of climate change impacts is expected to increase substantially in the coming decades. If we are to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change, emissions of greenhouse gases must be dramatically reduced…

As well as being sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Letter is endorsed by the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics and 14 other scientific organisations. Whatever its advocates elsewhere may claim, denialism has not exactly won the day in the scientific community.

All of the above denialist wisdom will be found in the paper already referred to; by leading denialist Bob Carter, a climatologist and Adjunct Research Professor James Cook University, Townsville.


Independent scientists who have considered the matter carefully do not deny that human

activities can have an effect on local climate, nor that the sum of such local effects represents a hypothetical global signal. The key questions to be answered, however, are, first, can any human global signal be measured, and, second, if so does it represent, or is it likely to become, dangerous change outside of the range of natural variability?

The answer to these questions is that no human global climate signal has yet been measured, and it is therefore likely that any such signal lies embedded within the variability of the natural climate system. Meanwhile, global temperature change is occurring, as it always naturally does, and a phase of cooling has succeeded the mild late 20th century warming. (Carter 2008, 190)


That human-caused climate change will prove dangerous is under strong dispute

amongst equally well qualified scientific groups. The null hypothesis, which is yet

to be contradicted, is that observed changes in climate or climate-related phenomena

are natural unless and until it can be shown otherwise. (Carter 2008, 193)

If made the captain of the SS Null Hypothesis, a liner sailing on its maiden voyage in the North Atlantic, Carter would order full speed ahead until it could be proven beyond reasonable doubt that the ship was about to collide with an iceberg. .As I have argued in the ‘Plimer’s Climatology’ series on this site, the most compelling evidence that the planet is presently warming is to be found in the:

  1. worldwide retreat of glaciers and the loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic, and
  2. satellite altimetry data that shows a consistent global sea level rise of 3 mm per year ever since readings began in 1992.

Both the above features are of geographic scale, and screen out the ‘noise’ of the ‘urban heat island effect’ and with it all the other strands of denialist argument. It may of course be the case that (say) so far undetected solar flux or bursts of heart coming up from the Earth’s interior are responsible for the ice loss and ocean level rise. It may be a mere coincidence that the rise from 270 ppm pre-industrial 383 ppm in 2009 is happening at the same time as a completely unconnected process of global ice loss and sea level rise. But I’m not betting the farm on it.

But interestingly, Carter and the other denialists never say what would constitute the unambiguous evidence of AGW that they proclaim does not exist. One is forced to the conclusion that in their view it cannot exist; that there is no way the signal of anthropogenic CO2 induced warming can be separated from natural background climate change, and that for them, by its own inherent nature it is both theoretically impossible and practically unknowable. Thus for them, if humanity was heading into self-inflicted climate catastrophe it would be doing so completely, inevitably and incurably blind. Nobody on the Titanic could have an inkling of the looming disaster. Whether conscious of it or not, as passengers on this planetary ship, the denialists seem not the slightest bit concerned at this possibility, which is implicit in their own thoughts on the matter.

One of the leading denialist Ian Plimer’s most enthusiastic supporters is Cardinal George Pell of Sydney.  On 24 May 2009, Pell had a column in the Sydney Daily Telegraph supporting Plimer’s position on AGW. A critical response from Michael Mullins, editor of the Catholic journal Eureka Street testifies that Catholics are not united behind him on the issue. However, Ian Plimer saw fit to include a significant theological aside on page 493 of his purportedly scientific book Heaven and Earth.

Human stupidity is only exceeded by God’s mercy, which is infinite.

In the context, the ‘stupidity’ referred to is what Plimer has spent his preceding 492 pages attacking: the proposition advanced by climatologists and other scientists that the Earth is being unduly warmed by human activities. This leaves the reader open to the conclusion that for Plimer, God is the ultimate thermostat. Of the Earth. There will be no climate catastrophe, because He will not allow it.

Well, it has this going for it: it is the most powerful and convincing argument in Plimer’s whole book, and the safest refuge for the denialist.

Without the atmosphere, the surface of the Earth would not be its present average temperature of 14 °C (57 °F), but as low as −18 °C (−0.4 °F).  In order of abundance, the main greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are (with their contributions to the greenhouse effect in [square brackets] ):

  1. water vapour (H2O)                   [36–70%]
  2. carbon dioxide (CO2)                [9–26%]
  3. methane (CH4)                          [4–9%]
  4. nitrous oxide (N2O)                   [neg]
  5. ozone (O3)                                 [3–7%]
  6. chlorofluorocarbons (‘CFCs’)     [neg]

All except the CFCs are products of natural chemistry, and have been generated in and by the atmosphere and ecosystems of the Earth since life began. All are likewise generated by human activities like the burning of fuels and the pasturing of ruminant animals such as sheep and cattle. The effect of the ‘natural’ as distinct from the anthropogenic CO2, N2O and CH4 can only be surmised from the known properties of each compound and the calculated concentrations of each in the air. If however, a significant percentage of the air was (say) chloroform (CHCl3), we could say that that any particular greenhouse effect due to that was 100% anthropogenic, because chloroform does not occur in nature.

However, that is a card we have not dealt to ourselves.

At this stage it would appear that there is no way the Earth can avoid a two degree rise in average temperature this century. That is an order locked in, thanks to the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that have been added to the atmosphere since around 1750. But a global average of two degrees involves a much higher rise of temperature in the high latitudes, threatening significant releases of methane from the Arctic permafrost and ocean floor deposits, which would in turn drive the temperatures still higher. While climatologists say that global warming involves an increase in the number of extreme weather events, it would be simplistic to attribute, say, a run of hot days in Adelaide in November 2009 to global warming alone, or to say that it even provides evidence of it. The global weather system is like a supertanker. Its momentum when underway is so huge and the time it takes to respond to alterations to engine speed and rudder settings so long that collision and running aground can only be avoided if anticipated well in advance of their happening. As all-too-often happens in shipping, those on the bridge are condemned to watching disaster steadily loom, knowing that the opportunity for taking evasive action is well past and gone. Vide the Exxon Valdez.

This year the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) changed the start date of the Pleistocene from 1.8 to 2.588 million years BP. In the last 650 000 years, the Earth has experienced seven major cycles of glacial advance and retreat, as seen on the  graph at the following  source,  [and my apologies for not being able to cut and paste it ditrectly.]

 We are now approximately in the warmest phase of the 7th cycle to occur in the last 650,000 years. It will be seen that corresponding warm periods in interglacials occurred at 130 000, 225 000, 325 000, 400 000, 475 000 and 580 000 BP.

It will be seen also from the above cited graph that the glacial-interglacial cycle has not been regular. In the last half million years or so, the glacials have been getting steadily longer and the interglacials shorter, as if the Earth was shaping up to plunge into a freeze-lock. If it were to do so, it might take a considerable time emerging on the other side and warming up again.

We are at a strange conjunction in the history of the Earth, with icecaps at both poles and the two American continents forming a north-south barrier to oceanic circulation that extends almost from pole to pole. It is pretty safe to assume that without the icecaps there would be no great mass of methane trapped in the permafrosts of Siberia and northern Canada, and thus considerably reduced possibility of runaway greenhouse establishing.

Since the start of the Cambrian 542 million years ago, the mean temperature of the Earth has kept between the lower and upper limits of 10 and 25 degrees Celsius; except for two brief periods in the late Permian (at 251 million years BP) and the end of the Paleocene (at 55.5-54.8 million years BP) when it went as high as 27 degrees Celsius.

Both of those periods have distinct names: the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event, and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. Both involved massive reduction of life, and should be taken very seriously by those who would avoid another one in the very, very, very near future of geological time.

As the old proverb has it, there are none so blind as those who will not see. Elvis may have left the building, but the elephant is still here.