Supermodels

I am good at math. Way gooder than I am at writing. In fact, I have always been irritatingly good at math. In second grade we played Around the World with math flash cards, and I crushed it. One day I went around the room four times and never lost. It’s a complete mystery why I never found myself duct-taped to a telephone pole. Probably because everybody knew I wasn’t that good at anything else. Yeah, I love math.

Perhaps the thing I love the most about math is it’s unforgiving rigidity. Two plus two has only one answer, no matter what you do. But I also love math’s utility in my world. I have a budget spreadsheet filled out to my retirement. I use math to keep track of every hockey roster I assemble. I even use math to track whether I’m going to keep all my perks on Southwest as the end of the year approaches. And I love the purity of never being able to blame math for anything. If something gets miscalculated, I’m the one who did it.

I love science just as much as I love math. It’s not as easy to say I’m good at science, because that could mean a number of different things. My degrees are all in what the University of Colorado calls Aerospace Engineering Sciences, and I’ve taken some good science classes, and the running joke whenever I’m introduced to someone new is that I’m a rocket scientist. But even though I love the scientific method and try to apply it wherever I can in life, I don’t consider myself a scientist. I’m an engineer – a mercenary who exploits science and math for profit.

I love models just as much as I love science and math. Now, when I said I love math and science, there was probably no ambiguity. But when I say I love models, well, what does that mean? Models that walk down a runway? I’m sure they’re nice people, but no, that’s not what I mean. Model airplanes? My brother loved those, and yes they are pretty cool, but I never had the patience to work with them the right way. Modelo beer? Well, yes, but that’s not where I was going with this.

I love mathematical models. And what the hell are those? Just like a model airplane is an attempt to capture the most important physical aspects of a real airplane, a mathematical model is an attempt to capture the most important physics of a real “whatever”. That “whatever” could be the Earth’s atmosphere, or it could be your retirement planning, or it could be the quantum mechanical foundations of everything we see around us. All three of these examples have some fairly complex mathematics behind the models, and all three of them also have to make assumptions where there isn’t a reasonable mathematical building block.

Models don’t have to be complicated. For example, suppose you are in your car, and you want to get from point A to point B. Let’s say you’re traveling 50 miles an hour, and point B is 500 miles away. The math is easy enough here that you know it’ll take you ten hours at that speed. But you could express this as a model if you were so inclined. The building block for your speed could be labeled “v” (for velocity), the building block for your distance traveled could be labeled “x” (because mathematicians like to use “x” in these cases), and the building block for time could be labeled “t”. The mathematical model for how far you travel (x) in a given amount of time (t) at a given speed (v) is then written as x = v times t. 50 miles per hour times 10 hours = 500 miles. That is a mathematical model.

While models don’t have to be complicated, the ones that aren’t complicated usually aren’t that useful. You were able to figure out the answer above without having to go through all that algebraic nonsense. But suppose you started at point A with the car in neutral, and then you had to accelerate up to your cruising speed. And then you had to account for friction of the tires on the road surface, which changes over the course of the 500 miles you’re traveling. As does the wind that might help or hinder your car. As will the curves in the road, and changes in elevation along the way. And of course the traffic, which confounds even the best of our navigation apps. Eventually, the real world gets complicated enough that building a mathematical model is well worth the time. Such is the case with Earth’s atmosphere, and that is why modern weather forecasting centers around mathematical models.

Attempts to model the way our atmosphere behaves date back to the early 20th century, but it wasn’t until the advent of computers around the mid-century mark that implementation of these models became even remotely practical. If it takes ten times as long to model the weather as it takes for the weather you’re modeling to happen, that’s not much use. But computers have become ever more powerful since their early days, and now we can predict the weather pretty accurately several days in advance. For most of us, our personal experience with weather forecasts always focuses on when somebody got something wrong. But if you think about it, they’re usually not wrong, at least not to a level that would have changed your plans. It rarely snows a foot when clear blue skies were forecasted. Hurricane tracks have become remarkably accurate in the days leading up to landfall. Scientists are tirelessly working on ways to improve our models of the weather. Some of it is just about buying more powerful computing systems. Some of it is about getting more accurate measurements from radars, satellites, and radiosondes (more about that below). And some of it is about developing better mathematical approximations of the physics. As it turns out, even if we had perfect measurements, perfect equations, and infinite compute resources, the forecast would still degrade the farther out you go in time. That’s because the things that happen at the molecular level are chaotic, and that chaos spreads over time like ripples in a pond (the “butterfly effect”).

A key to any mathematical model is how it is initialized – meaning how we state the conditions at the start of the modeling process. In the simple car example above, the initial conditions could have been stated as “the car is moving at a speed of 50 miles per hour when it leaves point A”. For weather models, we have to state things like “the temperature and humidity at various heights in the atmosphere were this”, and we’d typically get that information from radiosondes (ballon-borne instruments that take measurements as they go up) or satellites (which use photons of various types to infer the temperature at various heights). The more accurate you initialize a model, the better its results will be. Or more succinctly, garbage in, garbage out. As long as we continue to invest in satellite technology and other types of observations, we’ll continue to move farther and farther away from garbage in, and our forecasts will continue to improve, although the butterfly effect will keep them from ever reaching “perfect”.

Just like we model our weather (what’s it going to be like over the next few days), we also model our climate (what’s it going to be like over the next few decades). Asking “what will the globally averaged temperature be in twenty years” is very different from asking “what will the temperature be in Denver at 2pm this Saturday”. The dominant forces that determine the answer to the first question are different than the dominant forces that determine the answer to the second. And because it’s over a broader scale both in space and in time, the effects of chaos are dampened out in the question of climate. So even though an accurate weather forecast can only go out to a couple of weeks at best, a properly constructed climate model can go out to many decades. We know this because we’ve been able to validate the accuracy of our climate models by running them on the past and comparing them with what we know has happened. That gives us confidence to talk about the future, which means we can deduce from our current rate of climate change what the world might very well look like, say, by the year 2100. In the case of the studies carried out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we’ve run a lot of models with a lot of different initializations, and with a lot of different assumptions about the rate at which we continue to inject (or not) more carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. Again, I urge you to take a look at all they’ve done on their website. I’ll only summarize it here, with pictures from the IPCC’s latest report.

First, what is climate change already doing to our world? The picture below is jam-packed with answers to that question, and no amount of words from me can add to that.

The movie’s already started.

Next, where are we headed? That depends primarily on what we decide to do as a species. The leading scientists on this issue have modeled a range of such behaviors, each one with a different Representative Concentration Path (RCP) for carbon dioxide emissions. A specific working group (WGIII) was tasked by the IPCC with looking at a range of carbon dioxide concentrations as part of this process. Carbon dioxide is typically measured in parts per million. Today, it averages a little over 400. For reference, when I was in grad school running atmospheric models myself, a typical value was in the mid 300’s. The picture below summarizes the findings of the IPCC and WGIII for various scenarios, ranging from stringent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (RCP2.6) to no efforts at all (somewhere between RCP6.0 and RCP8.5). In graph (a) below, the lines indicate these different paths, and the shaded areas indicate the resulting range of carbon dioxide concentrations. Graph (b) shows the resulting temperature change for these ranges of carbon dioxide concentrations.

The plot thickens.

Finally, the picture below summarizes what we’ll be dealing with if climate change continues at its current pace.

You may not like the ending to this movie.

These are not just isolated models generating the results shown here. They are collections of models run over hundreds of scenarios – supermodels, if you will. The scary part? Things like the disappearance of ice in the Arctic are happening even faster than what the models had previously forecasted. So while it’s fair to argue that we don’t know for sure where climate change will take us, if anything we are being conservative. The next (and final) post in this series will talk about what we can do to change the current course, and why climate change is only one reason to do so. But for now, take a moment to listen to the supermodels.

The Hockey Stick

If you’ve been reading this blog since its third post, then two things can be said:

  1. You have some combination of very low standards and not enough to keep you occupied
  2. You know I love sports, and hockey in particular

I’ve tried my hand at both ice and roller hockey. Well, really only once in roller hockey – I got so freakishly overheated in my gear that I haven’t played again since. Ice hockey provides the perfect balance of heated metabolism in a chilled environment. Fire and ice, so to speak.

I didn’t play hockey as a kid. In fact, I never got on ice skates until two weeks before my first game. At the end of 1991, my roommate and I threw a New Year’s Eve bash at our apartment, and my newfound friends from graduate school were among the attendees. As we were standing around the keg, already vigorously hydrated, someone said “hey we’re gonna start an intramural hockey team, you wanna join?” My vigorously hydrated response was “Sure! I’ve never skated before but I’ll play goalie!” (Editor’s note: the goalie is generally supposed to be the most skilled skater on the team). My first game was an affair to remember; I didn’t put my skates on until the end, so I couldn’t tighten them enough, and I was falling off my ankles the entire game. I had to be helped off the ice. But by the end of the season I made a couple of saves and was unanimously voted “most improved player”. Apparently none of the early struggles discouraged me; I still play today (although I’ve mostly hung the goalie pads up).

Around the same time I took up hockey, I was starting my own graduate work with that same group of friends. My degree was Aerospace Engineering Sciences, and my focus area was remote sensing, which is basically trying to gain information about something without touching it. More specifically, I worked in satellite remote sensing, which is trying to gain information about the Earth from an instrument perched in space. Even more specifically, I was working on algorithms that try to infer where and how much it is raining. In order to do that, I needed to take some classes about atmospheric physics, and the University of Colorado was gracious enough to offer them. It was during those years in the early 1990’s that I got to take a longer look at what was then called “global warming”, a name just as unfortunate as “the greenhouse effect”.

A few years earlier, as an undergraduate, I attended a “global warming” themed event at the university, right in the middle of an Arctic blast that had Colorado submerged in below-zero weather for a couple of weeks straight – and of course we all thought that was at least very funny, and at most an indictment of “global warming”. Today, anytime it gets unusually cold anywhere, somebody inevitably says “so this is global warming, huh?” Which is why “global warming” is a very unfortunate term indeed, and has generally been replaced with “climate change”. Equally unfortunate is that the new term hasn’t been able to escape the stigma of the old one.

Here’s one problem with the term “global warming” and the broader concept of generally “hotter temperatures” in recent years: they don’t match up well with day-to-day human experience and perception of temperature. We don’t directly sense a globally averaged temperature; we sense the temperature of where we are, at a given location and a given moment in time. In other words, we directly sense weather, but climate change is not about weather, it’s about, well, climate.

Here’s another problem: what’s really happening with climate change is that more energy is being trapped in the Earth and its atmosphere, and sometimes that means it gets hotter somewhere, and sometimes it means it gets colder somewhere else, and sometimes it translates into specific events, like a more intense storm drawing from the higher amount of available energy. This includes all kinds of storms, including winter storms, which make us all think of exactly the opposite of “warming” and “heat”.

All of that said, a broader effect of our recent changing climate is that the Earth, on average, is getting warmer. So first, how do we know that? The answer is the result of a monumental effort across multiple domains of science, and across a century and counting of time. I could spend pages upon pages going through all of that, and I still wouldn’t do it justice. I also wouldn’t be able to tell you any better than the brightest scientists across the world, who have been studying the topic for decades. So I’m going to start by pointing you at one of their websites, the most recent assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Now, if you are one of those folks that simply don’t trust the scientific consensus on this issue, there is nothing I will be able to say to change your mind. I could hope you’d go to their website and see the thoroughness of their work, as well as their own admissions about where they are more or less confident about various aspects of the issue. I could hope you’d then read the references they cite, and then use your favorite search engine to bounce off the counter-arguments, giving all of it an equal and unbiased treatment. But since hope alone doesn’t write blogs, I’m going to continue here as though you did all that, whether you did or not.

So let’s talk more about temperature. The Earth has been around for four and a half billion years, which is long enough to have seen a lot changes in its globally averaged temperature. We can make educated inferences about the climate hundreds of millions of years into the past, based on what the fossil and rock records indicate. We can infer the temperature and concentrations of various atmospheric gases in the polar regions by drilling ice cores, sometimes over two miles deep and extending back to 800 million years. For more recent estimates, we can look at tree rings or even written records. For even more recent estimates, we have actually deployed instruments across the Earth that can measure temperature and concentrations of atmospheric gases. For the most recent estimates, we have had satellites in orbit that can measure these things by collecting the photons that are cascading from our Earth back into space.

Putting all of these things together, and comparing them to one another as best we can so that we know we’re dealing with apples and apples, if you look at a graph of temperature versus time over the past millennium, you get something looking like a hockey stick: a long period of fairly steady or even slightly declining temperature (the shaft) followed by a short period of rapid warming (the blade).

The hockey stick graph has been a subject of vigorous debate since it first came out in 1998. But on the whole, the general idea conveyed by the graph has survived this scrutiny: it is considerably warmer now than it has been in at least the last thousand years. The next question is “why?” Well, let’s take a look at the graphic below, basically “Figure 1” from the report I linked you to above.

Kinda looks like there’s a correlation here, no?

The first graph above (a) is the change in globally averaged temperature (degrees Celsius) since 1850. On the “hockey stick” graphs that go back to the year 1000, the increase shown starting in the early 1900’s gets squished to the right, very good for showing an image of a hockey stick, but not so useful for seeing what happens during the increase, which is why I’m not showing you the hockey stick graph.

A couple of things to notice in (a): first, even globally averaged temperature varies naturally from year to year or even over a period of years. Some of this is just pure chaos, while some of it is due to combinations of events like the solar cycle or the eruption of a volcano here and there. The second thing to notice is the general trend toward warmer temperatures over time. A number of volcanoes have erupted during that time, which tends to block sunlight with ash and have a cooling effect, but there hasn’t been any noticeable trend in volcanic eruptions either way. The solar cycle is eleven years, but the upward trend in temperature has lasted beyond several of those. So the Sun and Earth themselves don’t seem to be the likely causes for the increase in temperature.

Ok, now look at the second graph (b). Sea level is another thing we have progressively become better at measuring over time, and the trend is eerily similar to that for the temperature. That shouldn’t be too surprising: warmer temperatures means more ice melts, putting more liquid water into the oceans. Now look at graph (c). That’s the increase in “greenhouse gases” over the same period of time, including carbon dioxide. Now look at graph (d). That’s the increase in the amount of carbon dioxide from the stuff we do. So, in summary, (a) says the Earth is getting warmer, (b) seems to confirm (a), (c) says it’s likely due to increased greenhouse gases, and (d) says that’s likely our fault.

To state it more scientifically, here are the words of the IPCC:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen. 

Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by economic and population growth, and are now higher than ever. This has led to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Their effects, together with those of other anthropogenic drivers, have been detected throughout the climate system and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.

When a scientist (and especially a large group of scientists) says things like “unprecedented”, “extremely likely”, and “dominant”, people should listen. Given what clearly appears to be happening, the next post will talk about where we think that might lead in the future. But for now, consider perhaps the most tragic consequence of climate change: if it continues to get warmer, all the ice will melt for good, and eventually it will not be cost effective to keep ice frozen in large buildings, and hockey will be eliminated from society, turning the “hockey stick graph” into the omen to end all omens. I for one do not want to live in such a world.

Fire and Ice

When we spent a little time on Thales a couple of posts ago, we touched on the importance of water to our survival (or even being here in the first place). Water is a remarkable substance, regardless of which planet or moon it might call home. It is, as you’ve probably heard, the universal solvent, meaning it can take a whole range of different substances and break them down into their individual atoms, so that they can interact and recombine in all kinds of different ways.

What makes water even more remarkable for us is that we live on a planet whose temperature is in just the right range that water can exist in all three basic states: gas, liquid, and solid. In the same post that referenced Thales, I noted that water vapor – the gaseous form of water – is extremely variable in our atmosphere, and also a fairly potent “greenhouse gas”. The liquid form of water is the main source of life for us, not just because we need to take it in on a daily basis, but also because we are literally made of water – 90 percent by weight. Water is likely the medium in which life on Earth first formed, so it’s not too surprising that it still forms most of what we are today. Water in solid form is a bit more fleeting for most of us. The average temperature across most of the Earth is simply too high for water to remain frozen – and so we either have to wait for a winter storm, expend significant energy keeping water frozen, or trek to some other location on the planet – generally either very high or very far north or south.

Wherever you may find it, ice has a different kind of relationship to photons, compared to the liquid and gaseous forms of water. The latter two generally like to absorb photons, but the crystalline structure of ice tends more to scatter and reflect them. That is why liquid water, especially on a grander scale, appears dark blue to us, while ice appears more white. Liquid water absorbs most of the Sun’s light (and therefore heats up in the process), and ice reflects most of the Sun’s light (and therefore remains relatively cool).

In addition to being at just the right distance from the Sun to support water in all its glorious forms, the Earth is also tilted at just the right angle to give us a well-defined set of seasons. Winter in a given hemisphere begins when that hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun the most, and summer is of course the opposite. Whichever hemisphere you’re in, for all of the history our species has known, winter has lasted long enough that the polar region facing away from the Sun gets cold enough that its water has turned to ice. Meanwhile, summer has not lasted long enough for that ice to melt away entirely, which is why we have come to expect the Arctic and the Antarctic to be substantially covered by ice year-round. The reflectance (brightness) of ice is a big reason for that. Even when the Sun’s photons are beating down on Antarctica, the continent stays relatively cool by rejecting said photons back into the atmosphere.

Let’s move our minds back to warmer climes for a moment, where it’s a very hot day, and your thirsty, and so you pour yourself a glass of ice water. Have you ever noticed that ice water feels incredibly colder than just cold water with no ice in it? That’s because the water is donating vast amounts of energy (heat) to the ice so that it can melt, which is a process that demands some amount of energy (ice is stubborn). Water is very much up to the task, and the more heat there is in the water, the faster it happens. Well, the sheets of ice in the Arctic are nothing more than a big ice cube, and the Arctic Ocean is nothing more than a big glass of water. So if the Arctic Ocean gets warmer, the Arctic ice sheets will melt faster. And then – and here is the geophysical bitch of it all – what was once bright, highly reflective ice has been replaced with dark, highly absorptive water. So now the water absorbs more photons from the Sun, and gets even hotter, which causes the ice to melt even faster. This is what they call a feedback loop. Who are they? I have no idea. But it doesn’t matter, the physics is ridiculously simple. Your respect for my PhD should rightfully be declining at an alarming rate. Much like the amount of ice in the polar regions. Whoops, I got ahead of myself there. Pretend you didn’t read that.

Antarctica is a little different from the Arctic because there’s an actual landmass there (i.e., a continent). But the edges of Antarctica are directly exposed to the Southern Ocean, and so if, hypothetically, the water around Antarctica were to get warmer, we’d see more icebergs fall off of Antarctica as it melts. I stopped just short of getting ahead of myself there.

Let’s just say this. In the year 2100 and beyond, If you want to hear Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”, even though it will have long since vanished from the Top 40, you will be able to download it in any number of ways. If you want to see ice sheets and glaciers in the polar regions, you may need a time machine. Dammit, got ahead of myself again.

A Game of Photons

A Cloud of Uncertainty

As an asthmatic child that missed a lot of school and didn’t play in many sports, I had to find truly innovative ways to geek out. I checked out the same dinosaur book from the library so many times that my first grade teacher just gave it to me one day. I wrote my own books, albeit near complete plagiarism, on chemistry and astronomy. And in an attempt to combine my geekdom with my love for the sports I couldn’t play, I created an entire league of dinosaur football teams, meticulously setting up all the yard markers and providing play-by-play for my audience of me. Cue sad music.

One other thing that has fascinated me since I can remember is weather. And within that, I continue to be mesmerized by clouds. I was still pretty young when I started to memorize all the different types – stratus, cumulus, cirrus, nimbus, cumulonimbus, cirrocumulus, altostratocumulocirrus… ok I may have made that last one up. My PhD thesis (CU Boulder – go Buffs!) was in large part about teaching a machine to categorize clouds in satellite imagery. As a postdoc (College Park, Maryland – go Terps!), I signed up to participate in a science outreach event with local kids – and so of course I created a big poster of all the different cloud types. My favorite scientific paper ever – by a landslide – was about how artists had portrayed clouds in paintings throughout history. Yeah, I like clouds.

In the last post, we explored the complex interactions between the Earth and it’s atmosphere with respect to temperature and photons – a discussion scientists typically refer to as the radiation budget. But we didn’t give a moment’s consideration to clouds, and their impact is profound. As many types of clouds as there are, the radiation budget only cares about two broad categories: clouds that cool us down, and clouds that warm us up.

The clouds that cool us down are typically thick – from space they look white, because they are reflecting the Sun’s photons back up upward, preventing them from reaching the lower atmosphere or us. The clouds that heat us up are typically thin (usually wispy cirrus) – they let a lot of the Sun’s photons in, but then they block the infrared photons from us and our atmosphere from getting back out.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? But think about how fast clouds develop, move, and dissipate, and then extrapolate that to days upon weeks upon months upon years – it’s really hard to figure out what the overall effect is. The end result is that we have a lot of uncertainty surrounding clouds and their effects on how temperatures vary across the Earth and over time.

People don’t like uncertainty. We want things to be black or white, yes or no, left or right, innie or outie, pineapple on pizza is genius or pineapple on pizza is Satan incarnate. We don’t like gray area. We want things to be settled, so we can move from step A, which is now done, to step B. How the hell can we move to step B if we haven’t answered step A with 100 percent surety?

There are few ways in which we are sillier as a species than in our desperate need for certainty (and along with that, our utter disdain for uncertainty). Nowhere are we sillier in our need for certainty than in the case of weather. It has become part of our culture to state in beer hall conversations that the weather people can never get the forecast right. And yet, they get it right an overwhelming percentage of the time. It’s just that we only remember the occasions when they are wrong. And yet, even when they are wrong, it is mostly about whether rain turned to snow, or if one particular spot got hit a little harder than another. How often do you get a blizzard when the forecast was sunny skies? Even our predictions of hurricane tracks are pretty damned good, Sharpies notwithstanding. The uncertainty is rarely about whether a big event is going to occur, it’s more about exactly when and exactly where the effects will be exactly this or exactly that.

Why can’t we get it all right down to that very last detail? Because just like our radiation budget is ultimately governed by the actions of unimaginably tiny photons, the circulation of air and heat in our atmosphere is ultimately governed by the actions of unimaginably tiny molecules, and we don’t know where all those molecules are to begin with, much less where they will end up a minute, an hour, or a couple of days from now. But why are we so brutal to our weather forecasters? Predictions about what’s going to happen to our economy are even more imperiled. How did all those predictions about the last Presidential election go? Why aren’t you a millionaire from having successfully predicted the outcomes of all the football games last season? Uncertainty rules the world. It is not a weakness of any particular endeavor, it is a fact of life. And in the case of weather and climate, a big part of that uncertainty can be traced back to clouds.

But if we knew everything that was going to happen, all of the time, what would be the point of free will? We would just be making decisions that we would have no other choice but to make. Clouds are the spice of life. A toast, to Habanerocumulus.

I don’t know about you, but I see a T-Rex returning a pick six.

A Bunch of Hot Air

Over 2500 years ago, a series of Greek philosophers attempted to understand and describe the reality of the world around us. One of the very first was a man named Thales of Miletus. Thales applied his intellect to a great deal more than just philosophy.  He was a respected advisor to the Ionians, and he is said to have been the first man to successfully predict a solar eclipse.  He also tried his hand as a tactician, once helping an army cross a river by ordering a crescent-shaped bypass to be shoveled around behind them, thus reducing the flow of the river ahead so it could be forded and passed. But for the purposes of this already digressing blog entry, Thales’ biggest contribution was his attempt to answer the question, “What is everything made of?” Thales proposed that all things in the universe are made from water.

That sounds like a quaint notion now, but consider just how revolutionary his proposition was.  Until Thales made that bold statement, the Mediterranean was awash in mythology from East to West.  All of the happenings on Earth and in the sky were attributed to one or more gods, with no further explanation deemed prudent or necessary.  For Thales to come forth and suggest that the world was made of something other than the labor of deities, whether that something was water or beer, was nothing short of a giant leap for humankind, on equal footing with the first steps of Neil Armstrong on the Moon.

When you consider where Thales lived, it does not seem silly at all that he selected water as the fundamental substance of all things.  He was a man of the sea, living in an island and coastal culture, surrounded by water in its liquid form, so much that it seemed the very Earth on which he stood was merely floating in the midst of an endless ocean. Water was critical to survival then as now. We know today that water and carbon form the basis for our entire biology, so to elevate water to the status proposed by Thales so many centuries ago is most certainly a forgivable crime. This is a central tenet of science: the people who have been wrong play just as important a role as the people who have been right. Science transcends ego. What matters is not whether Thales was right or wrong, but that he even asked the question.

Following on the thread pulled by Thales, another philosopher named Anaximenes (also of Miletus) proposed that all things are made of air. This is just as remarkable as Thales’ idea, given that in most circumstances air cannot be seen. People knew of air on some level because it can be felt – hot air, cold air, and most importantly, moving air (more lovingly known as wind). As a life giving substance, air is just as precious as water for us – but we also now know that we are not made solely of either, and that both are made of atoms. You might imagine it took centuries or even millennia after Thales and Anaximenes to figure that out, but in fact it took mere decades for the philosopher Democritus to suggest it and even give atoms their name (a name meaning “that which cannot be cut”). It then took a couple of millennia for us to rediscover atoms, and another couple of centuries to actually see them with electron microscopes. Imagine the level of abstract thought to have come up with the notion in the fifth century BC, when no microscopes of any kind were available.

Back to water and air: it’s fairly common knowledge that water is made of molecules, each of which contains two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen – H2O. Air is also made of molecules, but with quite a bit more variety, leading to a mixture of invisible gases that surround us and our planet. The most common molecule in the air is nitrogen, making up 78 percent of our skies. Only 21 percent is oxygen, the gas we all need to breathe. Almost 1 percent is argon, and the rest is a smattering of other molecules – such as methane, carbon dioxide, ozone, nitrous oxides, and an extremely variable amount of water vapor.

Besides turn hot, turn cold, move, and keep us alive, what does air do? Well, getting back to the hot and cold part, the air at any given place and any given time has a temperature. There can’t be any question you read the last post, right? Ok, I’ll give you a few minutes. Let me know when you’re ready.

Welcome back. So, anything made of atoms or molecules with a temperature higher than absolute zero radiates energy in the form of photons. The air, being made of atoms and molecules and typically having a temperature higher than absolute zero, therefore radiates energy in the form of photons. Science is relentless. The air can also absorb the photons radiated by other things, just like other things can absorb the energy radiated by air and other other things. How much is absorbed depends on what molecules are involved. And that’s where things get even more interesting.

You know from experience that different substances absorb sunlight differently. A white shirt reflects a lot more light than a black shirt, and so you feel cooler and look brighter in white than in black. Most substances also absorb certain colors of light differently than others. The typical healthy plant contains a fair amount of chlorophyll, which absorbs more blue and red light than green light, and therefore reflects more green, some of which strikes our curious eyes, behind which our brains recall, oh yeah, most plants are green.

This concept extends into kinds of light and radiation that we cannot see – like ultraviolet and infrared. At the temperature of most things on Earth – including you, those things are emitting infrared radiation more than anything else. Some of those photons travel upward into the atmosphere, where they hit the different molecules in the air, and those molecules in turn might scatter or absorb the photons, depending on the molecule. On balance, the molecules that absorb the most photons in our atmosphere are water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane.

So now you’ve got this rather complicated situation. The Sun, thousands of degrees hot at its surface, from 93 million miles away, radiates photons of visible light in all directions, and some of those photons plunge into the top of our atmosphere. Some are absorbed, some are scattered, and some make it down to the surface, where they hit all manner of things, including us. This causes us to heat up and emit more of our own infrared photons back into the atmosphere, which then absorbs some and scatters some, and the photons it absorbs causes it to heat up and emit more of its own infrared photons in all directions, including back toward the surface, where they hit all manner of things, including us. This causes us to heat up some more and… you get the picture. You may have heard of this effect before – it’s called the greenhouse effect…

…which is a misleading name, as is the idea of a blanket. Greenhouses and blankets keep things warm because they don’t let the warm air escape. The atmosphere stays warm because it lets a lot of photons in but it doesn’t let all of those photons escape back into space. Eventually, even if getting absorbed and re-radiated many times along the way, some photons do eventually make it all the way up to the top of the atmosphere and trickle into space, but the rest contribute to warming our Earth and atmosphere. And so we end up arriving at some sort of equilibrium, which brings with it a general distribution of temperatures throughout the atmosphere and across the Earth. Forget greenhouses and blankets: because of the things that photons do, a planet or moon with an atmosphere is generally warmer than one without. That’s why the night side of our Moon, essentially the same distance from the Sun, is always unimaginably cold, while the night side of our Earth can often be perfectly comfortable. More generally speaking, it’s one reason our planet can support life as we know it. Usually, a bunch of hot air is couched as a negative thing. In this case, we owe it our existence.

What goes up must usually come back down.

You Are Radiant

It was a bit exhausting doing almost a year’s worth of posts on Constitutional Amendments. Having apparently learned nothing, I’m going to start a new series. But this time I’m not going to tell you the endgame. You’ll figure it out soon enough anyway, so quit your whining.

A central theme of this series is that it will be rather sciency. But it’s going to be sciency in a way that you don’t have to be sciency to get the point. I’m very sciency myself, and in a series of sciency investigations into how best to communicate this particular set of sciency information, I’ve scientifically determined that a non-sciency approach is the most scientifically sound. Let’s dive in.

You are radiant. I’m not just being nice, you are truly radiant. And why are you so radiant? Because you are hot. I’m not just being creepy, you are truly hot. Ok, let me backtrack a bit, you are relatively hot. As it turns out, there is no limit to how hot something can get in our universe. But there is a limit to how cold something can get, and it’s called absolute zero. Absolute zero is very, very cold. Ice cubes are cold, but only about zero degrees Fahrenheit or somewhat colder. Antarctica is cold, but only tens of degrees below zero. Liquid nitrogen is cold, and the depths of outer space are cold, but absolute zero is colder than any of them – about 460 degrees below zero.

Even if you are decidedly unsciency, you probably have heard that most things are made of atoms. If you glue a few atoms together, you get molecules. A molecule of water is made of two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom. H2O. Whether something is made of molecules or just atoms, those molecules and atoms are usually moving around a bit. But at absolute zero, they are completely still. That is why it is not possible to be colder than absolute zero – you can’t move around any more slowly than absolutely still. The hotter you are, the more and the faster your molecules move around. At the typical 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit of a human body, they’re moving around quite rapidly. And that is why you are hot. Relatively speaking.

When you are hot, you have some energy to get rid of. Your molecules do some of that just by moving around – basically the same reason you get all fidgety when you’re bored and wish you were doing something more interesting. But they also get rid of energy by doing something extraordinary: they radiate it away.

And just what the hell does that mean? Have you ever heard of a photon? I’ll tell you the first time I heard of one – it was when I was watching Star Trek, sometime in the mid 1970’s. And when I first heard it, they were talking about photon torpedoes. I had never heard the word “photon” before that, so I deduced that they were saying “full ton torpedoes”. It just sounded more intimidating, given that they were talking about weapons. But they were actually saying “photon torpedoes”, and in doing so, they were suggesting in a way that these weapons were made of light. Light is one of those things we try very hard to to describe, but it ultimately eludes a full explanation. One of the many ways to view it, and this works quite well when trying to understand how it behaves, is to say that it is made of uncounted little particles called photons. One of the many ways to view a photon is to think of it as a tiny little packet of energy. And when atoms and molecules are moving around, they release their energy in the form of these tiny little packets. And then… those photons can run into something else, and that something else absorbs them, and with that newfound energy, it gets hotter.

This is all beginning to sound very esoteric. But scientists are not making this poo up; you experience it every day in very familiar ways. The sun is very hot, and so it emits a lot of photons of light, and when your body absorbs those photons, it gets hotter. That’s not esoteric; you’ve felt it. If you stand out there too long, you’ll even get burned. Again, you’ve felt that. Sunlight makes you warm even through a window, because the window lets photons of light through, after which they get absorbed by your body. Again in the most again kind of way: you’ve felt that. Photons and their effects are real, even if all you see is a bunch of light.

You are nowhere near as hot as the sun (sorry), but you also emit photons, only they have less energy, and so they travel around as infrared radiation (“light” that we cannot see). Snakes sense their prey because their prey are emitting infrared photons. Night vision goggles work in exactly the same way. If you put your hand over a gray piece of charcoal on your grill, it’s hot even if there is no visible flame. Same thing for an electric burner on your stove. YOU’VE FELT THAT. Photons and their effects are real, even if we can’t see them.

Light is only a very specific kind of what we call electromagnetic radiation, which also includes infrared, ultraviolet, radio waves, microwaves, X-rays, and gamma rays – all things you have most likely heard of. All of these things are made of photons, although the colder the thing that’s emitting them gets, the more they behave like waves – hence the terms “radio waves” and “microwaves”. We’ll get into waves some other time. No, seriously.

Bottom line: anything whose temperature is above absolute zero emits photons of energy. That includes the Sun, the Earth, the Moon, you, your friends, your enemies, your house, your car, the oceans, the atmosphere, your phone, your computer, your clothes, your food, your favorite drink, clouds, stars, galaxies, and yes, even bacon. A moment of silence in awe of bacon.

Hommmmmmmm.

You’re probably wondering what the point is here. I already told you, this is a series of seven posts. For God’s sake, please calm down.

Until next time.

Shine on you crazy diamond.

Sky Blue Sharpie

Some states are better at getting attention than others. Alabama is probably one of the better ones in this regard, owing in recent years to their football team and their state legislature. But unless you reside beneath a stone, you’re probably aware of the newest story, which as far as I can tell was not initiated by anyone in the state of Alabama: their already near-legendary flirtation with a hurricane. Or not.

Now let’s be completely fair here: it is indeed possible for a hurricane to endanger the good people of Alabama (and the bad folks as well). Alabama has some coastline on the Gulf of Mexico, which means the storm surge (often the most damaging part of a hurricane) can hit it directly, as has happened a handful of times in the past. And even land locked states can feel the effects of a hurricane once it moves inland (although it typically loses steam rather quickly in that scenario).

Of course, the debate of the past couple of weeks has centered around whether this particular hurricane (Dorian) ever threatened Alabama. And again, to be fair, we are always trying to get better at predicting the tracks of these storms. Even for an individual storm, the predicted track can and does change in the days leading up to landfall. And yet, on balance, we’ve become remarkably good at it. Even 14 years ago, the forecasters pretty much nailed what Katrina was going to do.

In my career, I have had the good fortune to get to know, and become friends with, a number of people in the National Weather Service. You will be hard pressed to find a group of people more dedicated to their mission, because above all else, their job is to protect your life and property. You will also therefore be hard pressed to find a better bargain as an American taxpayer. That is all I’m going to say about their motivations in this political storm that has sadly overtaken the real storm. A storm which, by the way, destroyed a significant part of an entire nation (the Bahamas), and that has even more sadly become a footnote in American discourse.

People far more eloquent than me (meaning all people) have already described what went wrong here. But I will ineloquently focus on one fundamental issue: the art of delegation. Anyone who has run a successful business, or a successful government, or a successful military campaign, or a successful sports franchise, knows the value of naming the right people to make the right decisions that the top dog simply doesn’t have time to make. The President of the United States is (or at least should be) the most extreme example one could possibly conjure. Meanwhile, the National Weather Service spends a great deal of effort not just on predicting the weather, but also on determining the best way to warn us about it. Telling people a deadly storm is coming has enormous consequences. If that warning is wrong, the economic impact is significant, and it could even cause fatalities during the resulting evacuation. If you’re wrong too often, people will also stop listening to the warnings altogether. The science of predicting how people respond to weather warnings is as challenging as the science of predicting the weather itself.

It’s a fundamental truth that none of us has enough time to become an expert at everything. I’m still searching for one thing myself. But most of us have a job of some sort, and that job entails knowing more about certain things than other people know. When I need to present something that my team has done, I try to make sure that my team members are there to speak for their part. Not just because they deserve credit (which they do), but because they know far more about what they do and what they did than I ever will. On the flip side, how often do you enjoy watching your boss usurp or take credit for the job you were hired to do? Letting your people do their jobs frees you up to do what you need to do as a leader, and it makes your people future leaders at the same time. So when your people were trained their whole lives and specifically hired to make sure the right people are being warned about the right storms at the right time, it’s probably a good idea not to issue the warnings yourself. #failuretodelegate #business101

But actually, everything I’ve said to this point has been a digression from what I originally intended to discuss. A buddy of mine joked that Alabama would now need to be warned by default about all impending disasters wherever they may be. I responded that it would make more sense to remind all Alabamans that they live “where the skies are so blue”. And then I started thinking, hey, what’s up with that?

The implication from the Meteorology Department at Lynyrd Skynyrd Technical Institute is that Alabama has bluer skies than the other states. Meanwhile, in my home state of Colorado, we often remind folks that we have 300 days of sunshine a year. We’re just kidding by the way. Colorado has one day of sunshine a year, and it’s on a bad ozone day. Our restaurants and museums and parks and general quality of life are the worst on Earth, so please please PLEASE stop moving here!

That said, just how blue are the skies of Alabama? There are two ways to tackle that question: how often are the skies clear, and how blue is it when they are? Let’s hit the latter first: Alabama is humid. I’ve been to Tuscaloosa, and Denver was never as sloppy wet in broad daylight. And when it’s more humid, it generally tends to be hazier, meaning on a sunny day, Alabama’s skies are whiter and Colorado’s skies are bluer. Please don’t let that detract from my earlier statement: a bluer sky can’t even come close to rescuing Colorado from its comprehensive unpleasantness. Please please PLEASE stop moving here!

Now let’s get to that other question: how often is it clear in Alabama? So – again – I was in Tuscaloosa for a few days a few years ago. Far as I can remember, it was sunny the whole time. Two things about that: 1) I can’t remember where I left my phone a few minutes ago; 2) whatever I experienced for those few days in Tuscaloosa was weather; how often it is clear in Tuscaloosa is climate. Climatology, to be more exact: the study of what conditions are generally more prevalent over time in a given spot on our Earth. Not on any given day; but on average over thousands of days.

So, if I were to do this right, I would go to another part of NOAA: the National Center for Environmental Information. I have friends there too, and they take their jobs very seriously as well. If you want to understand what’s happening today, you need to understand what happened in the past. These folks are charged with making sure those records are accurate, and that whatever new information we obtain can be compared apples-to-apples. But doing this right would require the kind of time and money that would come with a grant, and I’m not going to get one of those. So I opted for the next best (no, not anywhere near next best) thing: Googling “days of sunshine a year by state”.

The top hit was a site called “currentresults.com”. I have no idea how reliable this site is, but they only give a number for one city per state. For Alabama, it’s Birmingham, and they are reported to have 99 clear days a year. Grand Junction, Colorado, has 136. 136 days of otherwise abject misery: please please PLEASE stop moving here! Arizona unsurprisingly wins with 193. Washington unsurprisingly brings up the rear with 58, but they’re actually tied with Vermont. I suspect we will soon see maple syrup used more frequently in cloud seeding.

The Washington Post ran an article a few years ago that was ultimately based on data from NASA. The Southwest won again there, but it looks like that little tip of Alabama on the Gulf Coast can hold its own. NerdWallet went to the trouble I apparently wasn’t willing to, and checked out some data from NOAA, resulting in a list of the sunniest cities. Arizona has four in the top ten. Colorado’s top entry is Pueblo at #13. Birmingham comes in at #97.

And so, aside from respecting the hard-working folks at NOAA and appreciating the value of delegation, I want you to remember three key things here:

  1. Colorado is a cesspool and you should totally stop moving here
  2. “Sweet Home Alabama” should have been named “Sweet Home Arizona”
  3. Regardless of (2), I know from the bottom of my heart that Ronnie Van Zant and friends were so confident his song would become a hit that he would have written it in sky blue Sharpie, had such a fantabulous color existed at the time.
A Southern man don’t need clouds anyhow.

On Paper…

I’ll admit, I’m pretty burned out on the Constitutional Amendment posts. But I did promise one more post about the original document itself, so let’s go check that box.

The main body of the Constitution contains a Preamble and seven Articles. Most people would recognize the words of the Preamble:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The Preamble has generally not been used all that much in Supreme Court rulings. That said, it wouldn’t have been written, with the words in which it was, unless someone felt it necessary. We could debate for hours on the meaning of common defense and general welfare, but if you gut the Preamble and just look at the beginning and the end, that’s probably the most powerful aspect of it: “We the People of the United States do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Not Congress, not a Government, but the People. It’s a concise expression of democracy, even if we don’t really live in one.

The first three Articles of the Constitution break it down for the three branches of Government: Legislative, Executive, and Judicial.

Article I establishes the House of Representatives and the Senate, and how and when they are elected. It also contains the infamous three fifths compromise, which was thankfully overridden by later Amendments. The latter portions of Article I deal with how bills are generated and the powers of Congress regarding taxation.

Article II establishes the Presidency and the electoral rules surrounding it, including the ridiculous Electoral College. It also names the President as Commander in Chief, and requires the President to “from time to time” give a State of the Union to Congress. Section 4 of Article II has received special attention of late:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

While it makes for spirited conversation, it’s unlikely to become anything more than that with our current Government; only the House can impeach, but only the Senate can convict.

Article III establishes the Supreme Court and goes on a bit about treason. Interestingly, it says nothing about how many members the Supreme Court should have. Congress set the initial number at five in 1801, then upped it to seven in 1807 and nine in 1837. In 1863, it actually hit ten before being reduced again.

Article IV goes into the power of the states and their citizens, including how to handle persons charged with crimes moving from one state into another. It also specifies that new states may be admitted into the Union by Congress, but not by extracting from or merging existing states (unless so approved by the respective state legislatures). Finally, it guarantees a Republican (the type of rule, not the party, which didn’t exist yet) form of Government to every state and protection of states against invasion.

Article V establishes the Amendment process, and since it’s relatively short and the basis for the previous year’s worth of posts on this site, here it is:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.

Article VI is a collection point for other miscellaneous items: debts remaining from the previous Articles of Confederation era; the supremacy of the Constitution; the binding of Government officials to supporting the Constitution; and a note that no religious test can ever be applied as a qualification for public office.

Article VII is the shortest…

The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.

…and its work is done here.

And so is mine. Check.

We have truly lost the art of good handwriting.

I Can’t Get No Ratification

Now that we’ve finished the Amendment Countdown, it’s worth spending a few moments on the Amendments that didn’t make it all the way through the process. As discussed seemingly an eon ago with the post on the 27th Amendment, it is purposefully difficult to change our Constitution. So the fact that we have even 27 of these changes is an impressive display of adaptability. That there aren’t more is not due to a lack of trying. The process has been initiated in excess of ten thousand times. But the vast, and I do mean vast, majority of those never made it very far. Obviously only 27 made it all the way. And only six made it through Congress before failing to achieve ratification with three-quarters of the states.

The original Bill of Rights actually contained twelve Amendments, but two of them – the first two, in fact – didn’t get ratified right away. The second of these (Congressional pay changes) eventually was ratified as the 27th Amendment. The first one, the Congressional Apportionment Amendment remains unratified to this day:

After the first enumeration required by the first article of the Constitution, there shall be one Representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall amount to one hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than one hundred Representatives, nor less than one Representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of Representatives shall amount to two hundred; after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor more than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons.

Now that is a run-on sentence. Technically, as was the case with the 27th Amendment, this one could still be ratified. But Congress is already well over twice as big as the limits therein, and the number of persons per representative is now closer to a million than to fifty thousand, so it wouldn’t achieve anything to pass the Amendment.

In 1810, echoing the paranoia that accompanied things like Alien and Sedition Acts a little over a decade earlier, the Titles of Nobility Amendment was passed by Congress:

If any citizen of the United States shall accept, claim, receive or retain any title of nobility or honour, or shall, without the consent of Congress, accept and retain any present, pension, office or emolument of any kind whatever, from any emperor, king, prince or foreign power, such person shall cease to be a citizen of the United States, and shall be incapable of holding any office of trust or profit under them, or either of them.

Eleven states initially ratified this Amendment, two short of the required total at the time. By the time a twelfth had ratified it, there were more states, and so it was still two short. To date, that is where it stands, now requiring 26 more states in order to be ratified. There is no time limit on it, but let’s just say the odds are long at this point. There is a faction out there that believes it actually was adopted into the Constitution, but that argument has been struck down by the Supreme Court. Interestingly, if it were to somehow become law, the titles of lawyers and judges everywhere would make them non-citizens, and we’d have something of a judicial crisis on our hands.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, a number of Southern states decided to secede from the Union, knowing that Lincoln wanted slavery to end. What Lincoln wanted even more urgently at the time was to keep the Union intact. So when his predecessor James Buchanan implored Congress to develop an Amendment that would protect slavery in states where it already existed, and when Ohio Congressman Thomas Corwin led the drafting of said Amendment, Lincoln did not object. Thus became the following:

No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.

The seven states that had already seceded did not vote on the Corwin Amendment in Congress, but just barely enough “yes” votes were obtained to pass it. It did not achieve its goal, however, as only a few Northern states ratified it (Ohio, Illinois, and Rhode Island). The Civil War followed soon after. And, of course, not only did the Corwin Amendment hit the ground with a thud, it was pummeled by the next two Amendments to be ratified; the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, and the 14th Amendment brought Constitutional restrictions to the states as well as the Federal Government.

In 1924, Congress passed the Child Labor Amendment:

The Congress shall have power to limit, regulate, and prohibit the labor of persons under eighteen years of age

The power of the several States is unimpaired by this article except that the operation of State laws shall be suspended to the extent necessary to give effect to legislation enacted by the Congress.

This was in response to some related court decisions on the subject, and it did get ratified by 28 states, but that was short of the required 36 at the time. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 effectively achieved the same purpose as the Child Labor Amendment, so there’s been no significant activity on ratification of the Amendment since that time.

People my age will remember some of the debate in the 1970’s about the Equal Rights Amendment, intended to declare against gender discrimination at the Federal level.  It was passed in 1972, but the original proposal, written by Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman, was submitted to Congress in 1923. From there it languished until growing support emerged in the 1960’s, and after passage it was ratified by 35 of the required 38 states during the 1970’s. Then along came the depressingly effective fear tactics of Phyllis Schafly and others, and the momentum stalled. It had a deadline, which was extended, but no additional states ratified it during that time, and a few states even decided to rescind their previous ratifications, which by the way may or may not be allowed (the Court basically punted on the question once the deadline again passed on the Equal Rights Amendment).

In recent years, Nevada and Illinois both passed resolutions to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, meaning it is one state shy of some serious Constitutional fireworks. What happens if a 38th state signs on? There’s a defensible sentiment that Congress would have the power to act in that case, because the Amendment itself doesn’t include its ratification deadline. Hopefully we will at least get a chance to see that play out. Beyond the immediate implications for women’s rights, it would have a significant effect on future Amendments as well. But for the moment, these words are not in our Constitution:

Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

The last of the Amendments to be passed but not ratified was the District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment, passed by Congress in 1978:

For purposes of representation in the Congress, election of the President and Vice President, and article V of this Constitution, the District constituting the seat of government of the United States shall be treated as though it were a State.

The exercise of the rights and powers conferred under this article shall be by the people of the District constituting the seat of government, and as shall be provided by the Congress.

The twenty-third article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.

This article shall be inoperative, unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission.

Back when we discussed the 23rd Amendment, we talked a little bit about the “special” treatment the District of Columbia receives: no real representation in Congress, and only minimal participation in the Electoral College. The District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment would have given the District just about every important right that a state would have, without going all the way to making it a state. Despite passage in Congress, it only received ratification by 18 states, and it was written such that the ratification deadline could not be extended. There doesn’t appear to be any groundswell of support to revive the issue for now, nor should that be expected any time soon: getting 38 states to agree that they should effectively reduce their influence by giving more to the District is a tough sell.

Then again, as you can see, any Amendment is a tough sell.  But as frustrating as that can be at times, it is also vital to the protection of our Constitution. I hope you’ve enjoyed this nearly year-long tour of the Amendments – I certainly have, and I’ve learned at least as much as you have along the way. Next post will take a look at the original Constitution itself, and then we can finally start talking about some other stuff. Unless I amend that plan.

Sometimes these things just get stuck (although my VW doesn’t).

First and Foremost

The 1st Amendment to our Constitution packs a lot of punch into relatively few words, doing its best to define what really makes America different from previous attempts at a free state:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It is interesting to compare the 1st Amendment that was ratified (written above) with what James Madison originally drafted:

The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed. The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable. The people shall not be restrained from peaceably assembling and consulting for their common good; nor from applying to the Legislature by petitions, or remonstrances, for redress of their grievances.

There is almost no recorded information about whatever debate led to the more concise version that was ratified, but a couple of key things were stricken during that process. First, “full and equal rights of conscience”. What did this mean? It was written in a way that suggests it tied to the clause on religion – perhaps it was broadening the idea to general morality? That would have made it at least a little easier to apply it to agnostics and atheists that nonetheless have a moral code behind their conscience.

The second interesting thing to note is that the freedom of assembly was originally not tied directly to the right to petition the Government for redress of grievances. The way Madison wrote it, those two items were separated by a semicolon, which generally is a stronger indicator of actual separation than, say, a measly comma. It sounds trivial, but the interpretation of our Constitutions hinges on these types of subtleties.

The entire Constitution leverages the many successes and lessons learned from human history, but the text about religion in the 1st Amendment probably reaches farther back than any other. Religion and power have been difficult to untwine for a very long time. For Europe in particular, the power wielded by the Vatican played a major role in who came to power elsewhere, and this among many other things led to the rise of Protestantism in its many flavors. For the British, that in turn led to the Church of England, which of course was imposed on the colonies. The colonies themselves had numerous different faiths, and some of these came to power in their own right on a regional basis. In all cases, religion was imposed by some level of government, including the payment of taxes to support whatever religion locally held sway, even if the citizens did not subscribe to that particular religion. This is why the 1st Amendment starts by preventing the Government from establishing a religion, and immediately levels the field with the counterpart statement about the right to practice the religion of one’s choice (assuming, of course, that religion doesn’t tell you to break laws or infringe on other people’s Constitutional rights).

We often hear about the “separation of church and state”; Thomas Jefferson used the words “a wall of separation between Church & State” – so “building a wall” meant something rather different in those days. Most court decisions around this concept have adhered to the “Lemon test”, which refers to the decision of Lemon v. Kurtzman in 1971. The Lemon test states that the Government is violating the 1st Amendment if:

  1. the statute (or practice) lacked a secular purpose;
  2. its principle or primary effect advanced or inhibited religion; or
  3. it fostered an excessive government entanglement with religion.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure the Lemon test does anything more than add words. And even with those extra words, the Court indicated that absolute separation is simply not possible, so there is always room for interpretation depending on the situation. Which of course can be exploited in either direction.

Freedom of speech, one of our most cherished rights, was trampled less than a decade after it was etched into the Constitution. The most infamous example is the collection of Alien and Sedition Acts pushed forward by John Adams and the Federalists, which essentially criminalized criticism of the Government. The pretense was that the criticisms were false, but of course it would be the Government who determined that. This all came from a paranoia that the French Revolution would lead to a new American Revolution and throw the nation into anarchy. When Jefferson became President, he wasted little time before overturning these Acts, but paranoia has pushed the envelope more than once since then. The Espionage Act of 1917 led to the conviction of a man who published leaflets urging resistance to the draft, and the Court upheld that conviction. And I’m sure you can see some similarities between what led to those older Acts and the sentiment brewing in Washington today. It bears repeating: eternal vigilance.

Freedom of speech has had one significantly negative consequence in American politics: the ability to speak with dollars. The 1st Amendment has been invoked multiple times to prevent limitations on the amount of money an entity can contribute to a political campaign. And since money determines how many ads you run, how big your operation for recruiting volunteers can be, how broad and effective your social media campaign is, and frankly your perceived importance which impacts your ability to get on talk shows, well,… this particular freedom is restricted to a fairly small fraction of our populace.

Freedom of the press is a natural extension of freedom of speech, with the underlying notion that the press has the freedom to speak to us about what is true, regardless of what any particular politician or political party might say. But the framers of the Constitution may have missed something here – perhaps it would have been good to say that not only should we not have a national religion; we should also not have a national press. This blog entry is already too long, so I’ll leave it at that.

I already mentioned the right to peaceably assemble in the last post on the 2nd Amendment – this one may be under the most assault right now, literally and figuratively, with the ever-increasing rash of mass shootings in the United States. Of course, the 1st Amendment only says that the Government can’t infringe on our right to assemble. But when half the Government is beholden to an organization that won’t let us do anything meaningful about the problem, isn’t the Government complicit?

I think the Founding Fathers would have had a vigorous debate about that.

Freedom always has cracks.