Voice of Reason– January 2018



Piedmont Humanists

Membership: adults $24/year
Seniors/students $15/year

Editor: Joyce Bates

All correspondence to:

Regular mail:
Piedmont Humanists
3620 Pelham Rd., Suite 5, #135
Greenville, SC. 29615

January 2018

 The Voice of Reason


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Sunday meeting: There is usually a talk, video, or general discussion from 11:00AM to 1:00PM
Location: the Earth Fare 3620 Pelham Road, Greenville.
Dates for the Sunday meetings are: January 7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th.

ATTENTION: our meeting room at Earth Fare will be closed for remodeling after the January 28th meeting until the beginning of June.

BUT: We will have a temporary weekly meeting place beginning Sunday February 4th at 11AM
At the Greenville Ballet School, 105 Woodruff Industrial Lane

Woodruff Industrial Lane runs between the Target and Academy Sports on Woodruff Road. There is a traffic light at the Woodruff intersection. The Ballet School is a little way down the lane on the left

                                                                           LIFE ON EARTH AND ELSEWHERE

Most of us have come to the conclusion that life hasn’t appeared magically out of nothing, but that certain conditions through some process must have led to its initiation. Also, we cannot be completely sure that what we experience here on earth is the only kind of life in the universe. Perhaps there are living things on planets revolving around the sun and other stars that are based on a completely different set of circumstances. We could be alone in the universe, but most of those working in space exploration include a serious search for life on other worlds.

First let’s consider what has been proven necessary for the existence of life on this planet. Most scientists agree there is a “Goldilocks Zone” that is just right for subsistence. The technical term for this area is the Circumstellar Habitable Zone and it applies not only to Earth but to any planet revolving around any star in the universe. It is the “just right” distance from a star where the temperature will maintain water in a liquid state- neither too hot nor too cold. Water, in a place too close to the sun would boil away, too far and it would freeze. The major portion of life on earth or anywhere in the universe as far as we know, needs water in liquid form for its existence.

This is not the only requirement. Other substances are necessary and carbon is one of them. Carbon is an important element because it combines easily with common hydrogen to form hydrocarbons. These are fundamental components of life and are not only plentiful on earth but in the universe, as well. We find them in sugar, bread, plants, animals, moons, meteors, and comets. The Murchison meteor that fell in Victoria Province, Australia in1969 contained amino acids and nucleobases. Both are the hydrocarbons found in DNA and RNA

An insulating atmosphere helps life by keeping water liquid. Additionally it generates an ozone layer which keeps out lethal ultraviolet light, and maintains a balanced greenhouse effect. Our four and a half billion year old world has displayed long-term stability through a process called the carbon cycle. Because of movements by plate tectonics, carbon dioxide is pumped up into the atmosphere by volcanoes and hydrothermal vents. On Earth this carbon over eons of time has been removed by chemical weathering where it has combined with rocks and eventually been returned to the hot interior of the planet by subduction occurring in ocean trenches and other areas where the plates have been forced downward. This is repeated over and over again. If the Earth gets too hot, the weathering increases and excess CO2 is chemically captured into rocks at a faster rate and over a very long period of time cooling will commence. The cycle is a natural balance between the processes of weathering, volcanism, and plate movement. Geologic history and the ice ages tell us it’s not without dramatic changes.

The atmospheric functions described above would be a waste of time if there were no magnetic field surrounding the planet. Without it the atmosphere would be blown away by the force of solar winds and life would die from exposure to radiation. This is why Mars and other planets in our solar system are not conducive to life as we know it.

There are two remaining ingredients required for the onset of familiar life. One is the existence of a rocky environment, mostly of silica instead of metal or gas. The other is a source of energy either solar or from chemical reactions within the planet itself. The earth is capable of both using solar energy and generating planetary energy through volcanism.

The mention of chemical reactions brings us to the subject of the toughness of life and the kinds of organisms located where most plants and animals cannot exist. They are called analogs because they can at least tolerate and could possibly thrive in some extreme environments existing on other worlds.

There is a river in southwest Spain called the Rio Tinto that is one of these extreme environments. It has a pH of 2.3 the same as lemon juice and this acidity has been created by the organisms that live in it. They are call chemoautotrophic bacteria because they exclusively use chemical reactions to create their own food so they don’t have to rely on other forms of life to maintain their existence.

Lake Vostok in Antarctica hosts another kind of analog. The lake is understandably inhospitable to life. Its temperature is a constant 28.4 degrees F but the water remains liquid because the ice above maintains pressure at 400 atmospheres. Volcanic vents at the bottom of the lake cause the water to circulate slowly. This allows it to pick up oxygen, nitrogen from the ice above, and minerals from the rocks below. The same microorganisms located near these vents have also been detected in hot springs in Japan. They use arsenic and sulfur as a source of energy rather than oxygen.

Although temperatures at the bottom of the lake are necessary for the above mentioned forms of life, they are in the minority. Most of the lake’s organisms are psychrophiles, that is, they are able to live in extreme cold. They possess enzymes that prevent freezing and can live in ice at temperatures as low as five degrees F. Other organisms are tolerant of salt as well as ice. They inhabit the saltier areas of the lake. The cells of these forms of life must balance the amount of water between their interiors and the outside environment. If there is too much salt in the outside environment they will absorb it uncontrollably, burst, and die.  The Lake Vostok organisms have developed various strategies to increase saltier solutions within their cells to maintain this balance.

The organisms at the opposite end of the spectrum are hyperthermophiles. These are creatures that can reach their best stage of growth at temperatures exceeding 176 degrees F.  One that is particularly efficient can survive at 248 degrees F. Because oxygen can no longer be absorbed into living cells at these temperatures most of the organisms live without it and metabolize by using iron, sulfur, or  nitrogen. All anaerobic (meaning without oxygen) microorganisms are not hyperthermophiles. E.coli a bacterium that lives in our gut and helps digest our food is also anaerobic. Bacteria that metabolize without oxygen are used in wastewater treatment facilities, too. Here they reduce the amount of nitrogen in water until it becomes safe enough to release into the environment.

Lastly, there are organisms that can live inside decommissioned nuclear power stations and in other radioactive facilities. The first member of this group was discovered in 1956 at an Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station during tests to see whether gamma radiation could sterilize food. The experiment failed when a can of meat spoiled after the tests and the bacterium responsible was isolated. This bacterium and its radiation tolerant relatives have the uncanny ability to repair their DNA within 12 to 24 hours of exposure. They do this by keeping multiple copies within their cells and this gives them the ability run on one DNA strand while they are repairing another. A specific species of this group has been genetically engineered to digest solvents and heavy metals at highly radioactive sites.

The above kinds of life exist in places we do not dare to go without sophisticated forms of protection or are in places we cannot go at all. They are the forms of life we should expect to see on other worlds. Below is a list of candidates that might support life within our solar system.

Mars: Mars is cold and doesn’t have much of an atmosphere or magnetic field but it is possible that the extremophiles described above could exist below its surface at its north pole. This is where the rover Curiosity has detected ice. Curiosity has also detected methane on Mars a possible hint that there is life but not a certainty.

Europa: This is a moon of Jupiter has an ice rind 62 miles deep below which is a super salty ocean. If life is there it could resemble life in Lake Vostok.

Titan: It is a moon of Saturn. It has a nitrogen atmosphere, clouds, and precipitation. Sunlight and electrons from Saturn’s magnetic field react with Titan’s atmosphere to produce the chemistry which forms organic compounds. Titan’s temperature, however, is -290 degrees Fahrenheit and its methane and ethane are liquids instead of gases.

Enceladus: This is another moon of Saturn, much smaller that Titan and equally cold. Recent flyby observations by Cassini have revealed cryo-volcanoes at the South Pole shooting geysers of water vapor and other materials into space. These plumes are similar in composition to that of comets. There is a subsurface ocean of liquid water below the pole about six miles in depth. Enceladus could be warm enough here to form life.

Comets: They contain molecules that form the sugars and amino acids with which we are familiar. They also have water vapor and carbon dioxide with smaller amounts of the hydrocarbons described at the beginning of this article. These compounds are all necessary for the familiar forms of life on Earth.


Goldilocks and the Water Bears, Louisa Preston, 2016, Bloomsbury




                                     SOURCES OF THE GOLDEN RULE

The commentary below was ignited because of an article by a well-known columnist that appeared in the Greenville News a few weeks ago. It featured the problem of sexual misconduct and criticized a resolution introduced in Congress requiring House members, employees, etc, complete an anti-harassment course. The writer of this column also suggested that we should, with “caution” indulge in the supposition that “morality can be managed without religion”. Statements such as this are always a source of consternation for any non-believer including myself. Thus enraged I decided to see how the ubiquitous Golden Rule fared in historical writings, since it was general enough to include sexual harassment. Here is what I found:

Circa 2000 BCE “Do for one who may do for you, That you may cause him thus to do.”

This is found in the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant appearing in hieroglyphics during the Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt (2040-1782 BCE). The story itself is based on a peasant’s speeches about fairness for the whole of society and his demand for restitution because he has been beaten and robbed. In the end justice prevails and he is awarded the property of the perpetrator. Circa 700 BCE “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the LORD.”

This is one of many quotes from the Hebrew Bible.

Circa 500BC-1000AD, two quotes: “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another whatsoever is not good for itself”.  (Dadistan-i-Dinik) .
“Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others.” – (Shayast-na-Shayast)

These are both from the Pahlavi Texts of Zoroastrianism.

Circa 500 BCE “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” – (Udana-Varga 5:18, Buddhism)

-and below a translation of a Buddhist text from about the same time that emphasizes the psychological trait of contemplating the thoughts of another person:

“The Ariyan disciple thus reflects, here am I, fond of my life, not wanting to die, fond of pleasure and averse from pain. Suppose someone should rob me of my life…it would not be a thing pleasing and delightful to me. If I, in my turn, should rob of his life one fond of his life, not wanting to die, one fond of pleasure and averse to pain, it would not be a thing pleasing or delightful to him. For a state that is not pleasant or delightful to me must be to him also; and a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?”

Circa 500 BCE: These are two quotes from the Analects of Confucius:

1) “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”

2) Zi gong, a disciple of Confucius asked “Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?” The Master replied “How about ‘shu’ (reciprocity): never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.

In both examples we see not pure altruism but a gentle warning to think ahead about the ramification of abusing someone else. “What goes ‘round, comes ‘round” is a modern colloquialism in the same vein.

Circa 400 BCE: “Do not do to others what would anger you if done to you by others” This quote is usually attributed to Socrates. In another classical writing, though, Plato looks at the rule from a point of law about theft. Plato admits he would not like someone stealing or disturbing his property and, because he is a man of reason he would not treat another’s property in a like manner.

Circa 90 CE: “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also unto them likewise.” – Gospel of Luke 6:31, Christianity. This is the famous sermon where one is advised against retaliation for harm done by others, especially those in power. In another light it can be read as a stricture against revenge. Very similar words appear in Matthew 7:12.

Circa 600: Muhammad receives the Qur’an which instructs us to do good to all (4:36). There is another interesting directive appearing later in the Qur’an “Woe to those who cheat: they demand a fair measure from others but they do not give it themselves” (83:1-3). This quote addresses reciprocity again by criticizing cheaters and warning followers to censure them socially.

The texts of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are indeed religious. The Egyptian story appears to be more secular, although fairness to others was part of living a “harmonious” life and was represented as a goddess. The Buddhist texts are thought to be religious by many but there is no consideration of a god in Buddhism. Confucianism, like Buddhism is a philosophy and does not deal with a god. The writings of Plato are in the same category as the previous two. So, moral behavior is not dependent on religious belief.

Those who study human and other hominin communities that go back further in time than the written word, are now speculating that the concept of fair treatment to others could have occurred when the genus homo recognized the need for cooperation in order to survive in groups.





Why teachers drink:

Name the four seasons:  salt, pepper, mustard and vinegar

How is dew formed?  The sun shines down on the leaves and makes them perspire.

Explain the process by which water is made safe to drink:

Flirtation makes water safe to drink because it removes large pollutants like grit, sand, dead sheep and canoeists.

What are steroids?  Things that keep carpet still on the stairs

How are the 20 parts of the body categorized (e.g. the abdomen)?

The body consists of 3 parts: the brainium, the borax and the abdominal cavity. The brainium contains the brain, the borax contains the heart and lungs and the abdominal cavity contains the bowels AEIOU.

What happens when a boy reaches puberty?  He says goodbye to his boyhood and looks forward to his adultry.

What does varicose mean?  Nearby.

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