Friday, December 28, 2012

And the Angel Said unto Them ...

No angel but the smoke plume of a combined heat and power station near Freiburg
(Photo BZ)
It is a tradition that Der Spiegel, the German copy of Time Magazine, chooses for its Christmas edition as cover story a religious topic: Warum glaubt der Mensch und warum zweifelt er? (Why do men (and women)* believe and why are they doubtful? This year the other important German weekly Die Zeit published an article about religion too: Warum wir glauben müssen (Why are we fixed on believe).
*In the following I use man in the meaning of the German Mensch that includes women

Looking back in history religion has evolved from polytheism to monotheism in the order of their becoming: Judaism, Christendom, and Islam. I know little about Mohamed but the development of Christendom out of Judaism transformed the punitive God who nearly had annihilated his own creation in the Flood into a God that we shall address Father, a God who still is strict but forgiving.

The abuse of any religion as an instrument of power runs like a thread through history and is particularly true for Christianity. When at the end of the Middle Ages persons like Wycliffe, Hus, and Luther tried to reduce the mission of the Church to its spiritual roots they were treated as heretics. Declared a heretic even after his death Wycliffe's body was exhumed and destroyed while Hus was burnt at the stake during the Constance Church Council. When Luther in his anti-roman fight eventually stood with his back to the wall he made the ill-fated pact with the local sovereigns. They only were too happy to transfer the treasures of the Catholic cathedrals into their coffers, annex the rich territories of the monasteries, and take the post of a Lutheran regional bishop. In all this the common man sometimes came out of the frying pen into the fire like in Calvin's oppressive Geneva Republic and frequently longed for a revival of Roman Catholic rule.

When during the Thirty Years War atrocities were committed in the name of God both by Catholics and Protestants common men and women started to doubt not only God's justice but his lovingness too. A villager of Gerstetten, Swabia, wrote in all his misery: Only a few houses of our hamlet still exist. We live like animals eating bark and grass. Nobody remembers that a situation alike had existed before. Many people say it is now certain that there is no God ... We however believe that God has not left us … It consoled the common people when priests and pastors kept telling them that they will be compensated in a future life for their sufferings and miserable earthly existence that often contrasted so much to the luxurious, libertine life of their rulers.

In the middle of the 18th century Enlightenment generated two classes of thinkers: deists (Rousseau and Voltaire) although opposed to the Church and atheists (Diderot and von Holbach) denying the existence of any God. The French Revolution opposed to the Church too did however not want to hurt the religious feelings of the people and erected temples to the Supreme Being we worship. Rulers like Frederick the Great and Napoleon simply looked upon religion as something to be used to their benefit.

In the 19th century philosophy took hold of religion. Feuerbach's atheism described religion as the self-reflexion of man, a projection of human unfulfilled wishes and positive attributes into an individual God-figure, i.e., a mirror of man. Marx impregnated by the misery of the Silesian weavers who were trying in vain to compete with spinning jenny saw in religion a pervert political instrument of human oppression in sedating the common man. In short, religion is opium for the people.

In the 20th century physiology and psychology took over from philosophy trying to come to grips with religion. In an earlier blog I already referred to Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod who more than 40 years ago in his book: Le hazard et la nécessité not only denied a creator-God but attributed man's quest for God to a genetic defect we must overcome. How can this be accomplished? Should one cross-breed atheists?

Here comes the entry point to Manfred Dworschak's article in Der Spiegel: Cross-breeding atheists will not help for they are less reproductive than strong believers or fundamentalists: Wives of ultra-orthodox Jews on the average give birth to eight children and also the Amish people are productive well above average. On the other hand, atheists do not grow by birth but by the afflux of apostates.

In the 21st century the genetic cause for believe is again rearing its head: Geneticist Dean Hamer's God gene hypothesis postulates that a specific gene (VMAT2) predisposes man towards spiritual or mystic experiences according to Hamer's book: Faith is Hardwired into our Genes but where is our "soul" located? Neuro-theologist James Ashbrook spotted the ability to treat mystic experiences in the lobus parietalis superior of our brain. That would mean that even the atheist will believe in something, a position linguist Uberto Eco and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini support in their dialog: In cosa crede chi non crede? In what believes somebody who does not believe? Unfortunately in the English translation the book title is poorly simplified to Belief or Nonbelief?

Accordingly Christian Schüle writes in Die Zeit: Man's belief is something natural. Ratio, the axe of reason, does not give answers to the question: Is there a plan behind everything and is my life guided?

Man is born as a pro-social being. Modern psychology sees an evolutionary advantage in religion for living in a community demands a certain reduction of personal egoism. Such an ego-deflation then allows people to better cope with the dangers and hardship of life. The evolution psychologist Lee Kirkpatrick takes up Feuerbach's ideas but in a positive way: Man strives after a positive self-perception but is aware of the abyss between wish and reality. This tension man tries to solve by religion, i.e., a synonym for the search of a father figure.

God's eye is watching

In Der Spiegel Dworschak also considers religion as something inherently human. He too points out the (evolutionary) advantage of belief but more in the direction of Big brother is watching you. Families and small communities may trustfully live together but for the communal life of larger communities not only rules but also somebody assuring their abidance are necessary. Consequently in the Old Testament God issues the Ten Commandments. He watches and He punishes any breaching of the law. God dominates Judaism, Christendom, and Islam in demanding good social conduct. He will reward with redemption and heaven, otherwise He has the means to punish the spoilers with damnation and hell.

Scientists observe that people of the same faith trust each other to a high degree and therefore Schüle calls trust the currency of religion. As an example Dworschak mentions the Indian religion Jainism. The Jains have taken over the international diamond trade in Antwerp from the Jews and trading diamonds requires a high level of trust. And is there not a high level of mistrust between Christians and Muslims?

What did I learn from all that? In spite of all the new scientific attempts to "explain" religion the Church is still in the upper position calling the Christian believe a great mystery. The priest celebrating Mass concludes the Eucharistic Prayer proclaiming: The mystery of faith and the community answers: We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again.

And at the end I again have to come back to Saint Paul who writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, 13-12: Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

With this in mind Paul develops his vision of a (Christian) society without laws when he writes with respect to the Ten Commandments in his letter to the Romans 13, 8-10: 8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Love is all you need (The Beatles).

Thursday, December 27, 2012

On the Streets Where We Live ...

... there may not be lilac trees but streets in Europe carry names that are sometimes laden with history. Red Baron lives on Maria-Theresia-Straße, corner Fürstenbergstraße while a block from here a street is named Türkenlouisstraße. Some persons did not like living on Turkish Pimp Street and complained about it to Freiburg's city council. These ignoramuses had to learn that Türkenlouis was the nickname given to Ludwig-Wilhelm of Baden-Baden who in successfully pushing back the Turks on the Balkan in the late 17th century saved the Habsburgs.

Many Germans are obsessed with their broken history be it right or left. In renaming streets and squares they try to stun their feeling of guilt. Presently we watch a new wave of re-baptizing rolling in.

The other day I read a note in the Berliner Zeitung that the citizens living on Treitschkestraße had plebiscited against the renaming of their street. Heinrich von Treitschke a renowned Prussian historian in the 19th century wrote right wing history books with sentences like the following about the annexed Alsace: These lands are ours due to the right of the sword and we shall rule them because of the right of the German nation. We shall not allow those lost sons to grow apart from the Reich. We Germans know better what avails to the Alsatiens ... we shall restitute their self against their own will. Even worse Treitschke coined the later abused sentence: The Jews are our harm (Die Juden sind unser Unglück).

Going back in history: In 1945 with the fall of the Third Reich all Nazi street names were eradicated. Freiburg's main axis Adolf-Hitler-Straße however did not recover its previous name Kaiserstraße. In order to avoid any allusion to the Second Reich's Kaiser Wilhelm II the street was renamed in Kaiser-Joseph-Straße reminiscent of the Habsburg rule of Joseph II, Maria-Theresa's son.

Similarly when the Communist regime tumbled in the east in 1989 names like Walter-Ulbricht-Platz or Wilhelm-Pieck-Straße disappeared. Opposition arose when in an over-zeal city councils threw the baby out with the bathwater re-baptizing streets named after Ernst Thälmann, the charismatic leader of Germany's Communist party in the Weimar Republic, murdered by the Nazis.

The recent wave of changing names started in March 2012 when the city council of Münster, Westphalia, renamed their Hindenburgplatz into Schlossplatz. This decision did not please everybody and a popular initiative against the decision evoked as a decisive argument the culture of remembrance (Erinnerungskultur): A square that had been named 85 years ago after the First World War General Paul von Hindenburg should keep its name. Mind you, since Hindenburg made Hitler Reichskanzler he became a highly contested person. In September 2012 a citizens' vote eventually confirmed the city council's decision by 56,700 to 38,800 votes.

The street renaming mania reached Freiburg two months ago when the city's Commission of Cultural Affairs decided to scrutinize all 1300 street names. Yes, there is a Hindenburgstraße in Freiburg too but with respect to renaming streets Freiburgers rather think of the so called heros' quarter (Heldenviertel) where you find names of bloody First World War battles like Langemarck und Skagerrak (Battle of Jutland) together with the Imperial admiral Graf Spee and the fighter pilots Oswald Boelcke (Dicta Boelcke), Max Immelmann (Eagle of Lille), and Manfred von Richthofen (Red Baron). In addition nationalist poets like Hermann Löns (Der Werwolf) and Gorch Fock (Seefahrt ist Not, i.e., Going to sea is a necessity) have their street names.

Which street names will the commission propose to change and where will they stop? Will they consider people like archbishop Conrad Gröber who initially had sympathized with the Nazi regime before he became an adversary. Is Alban-Stolz-Straße to be renamed because this catholic poet was an anti-Semite? And what about the namesake of an important Freiburg ring-street Karl von Rotteck, a great liberal personality but nevertheless accused of anti-Semitic quotations? I shall keep you informed.

©Andreas Höfert
Lucky United States not calling their streets names although there are exceptions to the rule. In 2004 I took a photo in New York of a street sign commemorating a giant of jazz. Well, consider the German tourist reaching for his mobile phone and in quest for a toilet on W C Handy's Plaza.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Dear friends,

Wishing you a

Merry Christmas and a Happy* New Year

I would like to show you a picture that surely touches the heart of many German Christians:

Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger alias Benedict XVI from Bavaria, Germany's south, pontifex maximus of the Catholic church, head of Vatican State and Joachim Gauck from Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany's north, Lutheran pastor, Federal President, both Männer des Geistes (men of the humanities), smilingly sit opposite to each other without reserve. In the back watching is Vatican's George Clooney, the popes secretary and recently appointed Titular Archbishop of Urbs SalviaGeorg Gänswein who by the way still keeps his apartment in Freiburg's Herrenstraße.
*In Germany we rather use the adjective Healthy instead of Happy in particular when we are of an advanced age

The photo (dpa) was recently taken during Gauck's official state visit to the Vatican. The picture is one of hope for my country, for centuries nearly torn apart by religious quarrels. Although I must admit that nowadays the majority of Germans couldn't care less about their Christian past. As in other countries less and less people exercise their religion. In Germany's east whole regions even are pagan following 45 years of atheistic rule. This is a country to be evangelized like at the time of Saint Boniface more than a thousand years ago.

Those of you who visited the Freiburger Münster have possibly seen the original stained glass windows and looked at the following scene with a smile.

New born Jesus is wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger with the ox eating the child's diaper. Father Joseph is not amused and with his cane he hits the ox on the snout. Humor around 1300.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Radical Reactors Revisited

Although my main interest was in accelerators, one sideline topic accompanying my professional life was nuclear reactors. Already in my early days, experts kept telling that governments and industry had backed the wrong horse. They said that the light water reactor producing enormous amounts of highly radioactive waste had been as bad a choice as (remember) the VHS videotape system over Sony's Betamax. In those early days, the Canadian CANDU reactor line using heavy water was considered a better technical solution. One consequence of the "bad choice" is that we are now faced with a problem of safe storage of highly radioactive waste. To "incinerate" this waste, my former director-general and Nobel prize-winner Carlo Rubbia even had proposed a new type of reactor, the accelerator-driven Rubbiatron.

Given the dramatic climatic changes due to the burning of fossil fuel, the quest for cheap and safe energy is unbroken. In an article with the eye-catching alliterated title Radical Reactors published in Nature Mitchell Waldrop sells old ideas for new. He mentions, among others, Kirk Sorensen promoting the Thorium molten-salt reactor while an American-Japanese collaboration is working on a fast reactor. Charles Forsberg of MIT said: Given the erratic output of both wind and solar generators if you're going to get off fossil fuel, you have to have a serious nuclear program. For such a revival of nuclear energy global security analyst Edwin Lyman states: Nuclear is hard, it's expensive, it's slow. Indeed, engineers and scientists must develop better radiation-resistant materials, more efficient heat exchangers, and improved safety systems.

Here you see Kirk Sorensen (First row, second from the right) with a banner advertising Thorium as reactor fuel.

This is a sketch of the molten-salt reactor with its famous frozen plug.
In case the cooling of the reactor is lost, the plug melts and opens.
The molten salt will flow out of the reactor vessel
and be caught safely in a container located below.
Let me predict that all these efforts for a comeback of nuclear energy are doomed to failure for all projects must work with higher pressures, temperatures, and radiation levels to increase their energy efficiency. Material science still does wonders in developing new materials for specific needs, but with the metal and ceramic compounds tailored for the modern nuclear industry, we already approach limits. Any increase in pressure, temperature, and radiation level will increase the failure rate of the materials used more than linearly, i.e., the planned new installations are accident bound. Besides, all those efforts come too late. As a German proverb states: The train has left the station.

I prefer soft green to hard nuclear energy, although developments in the field of new energies are slow. Despite enormous funding of electric mobility, the efficient electric car is still wishful thinking. The storage of energy essential due to the erratic output of both wind and solar generators is not solved. My favored storage medium is hydrogen produced in electrolysis during times when the industrial and household surge on solar and wind generators is low. Hydrogen is quite a "noble" energy, although it may blow up your home when poorly handled. Well, there are things you want, and there are those you can do (Das eine was man will und das andere was man kann).

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Doha and no End?

This year winter is incumen in Freiburg early. The climate experts are back from the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2012 in Doha, Katar disappointed and warning, but who shivering with cold will believe in their global warning of a global warming?

Mean temperatures in oC at Ebringen near Freiburg from 1983 to 2011 and trendline
Yet we experience the cumulative occurrence of local heavy rainfall followed by inundations and of extended periods of extreme droughts around the globe. Perpetual ice layers are no longer permanent and their melting is raising the water level of the oceans at an alarming rate. In Freiburg too trends are visible where an increase in yearly precipitation is due to heavy rainfalls. They are caused by more water being evaporated due to the higher temperatures in the atmosphere forming "heavier" clouds.

Yearly precipitation in liters per m2 at Ebringen from 1986 to 2011 and trendline
Experts keep telling us that CO2 emissions are the culprit of the greenhouse effect. The following graphic gives names and numbers in 2010.

Graphic presentation Badische Zeitung
Absolute figures in millions of tons of carbon dioxide emitted are on the left hand side whereas the figures of merit, i.e., the discharges per capita are on the right. I think I am beginning to understand why the UN convened the Climate Change Conference in Doha's capital Katar. The winner with 38 tons simply took it all. This puts into perspective the position of the US with 17 tons per capita somewhat. Germany with 9.9 tons of COper capita does not figure on the graphic but what the heck is so special about tiny Luxemburg? Why did the EU not rap on their knuckles?

Trinidad and Tombago even are worse examples. With daily temperatures around 30 oC they possibly use much air conditioning. Unlike most of the other Caribbean islands, both Trinidad and Tobago have frequently escaped the wrath of major devastating hurricanes, including Hurricane Ivan, the most powerful storm to pass close to the islands in recent history, in September 2004 (Wikipedia). So how will the people react when one day they will experience a full discharge of the usually laden atmosphere in the Caribbic?

Some delegates at the Doha conference implored what is known as The Common Vision of a maximum carbon dioxide emission being reached in 2015. In the following years emissions should and must decrease for otherwise the target figure limiting the global temperature rise to 2 oC in this century will be missed.

Katar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrein, and United Arab Emirates said they will announce measures protecting the climate soon but added that this is in contradiction to national goals in view of their dependence on oil and gas production. Eventually only the Dominican Republic, Libanon and Monaco presented target figures for limiting their CO2 emissions while other countries did not move. However, at the end the fed-up chairman Abdullah bin Hamad All-Attiya swung down his gavel closing the final session of the conference thus forcing the participants into a prolongation of the Kyoto Protocol.

Germany's environmental minister Peter Altmaier (the well-built guy)
in discussion with chairman Abdullah bin Hamad All-Attiya (dpa)
It seems that all countries are waiting for the 5th Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change due in 2013 or 2014 hoping scientists will have found out that the nightmare of a global warming has somehow disappeared.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Telekom and Telecom

Whereas the mobile phone company Telecom in the States is a somewhat marginal enterprise its mother DeutscheTelekom is the strongest player on the phone market in Germany. This has historical reasons for all telecommunication was once run by our national mail service. The Deutsche Reichs- later Bundespost was a giant running bank, mail, and telephone services - the latter two without competition - that accordingly were sometimes lousy. However, Die Post was not always to blame. Since in the 1950s  the cable infrastructure could not keep up with the increasing demand for telephone lines people sometimes had to wait "in line" for months before being lined up. With time this bottleneck disappeared and our government decided to open up the telecommunication market to competitors. Still, people generally are lazy and remained true to their old provider.

Returning to Germany following my thirty-two years in Switzerland I had a free choice. For me the reasoning to re-join the Deutsche Telekom was as follows: In 2000 it was the only company offering both telephone and internet services. In addition even nowadays Telekom still operates all hardware infrastructure that the new companies are exploiting.

My relation with Telekom was not without marital conflicts. The correspondence with my provider fills a thick ring binder. In particular the speed of my internet connection is a permanent subject of dispute. My latest grievance was about a limitation in the number of e-mails I was allowed to sent. When I tried to send messages to a number of groups I sometimes got the following message: 550 5.7.1 Send quota exceeded, try again in 25436 seconds which meant that the following morning I was OK again. Still, this was annoying so I had my contract with Telekom changed. For a modest monthly fee of 1.5 euros they increased the size of my mailbox (what I do not need) and raised my limit for sending e-mails to a number that I shall never even come close to.

Taken as a screen shot. You may not be able to read this.
So it came somewhat as a surprise that when the other day I wanted to announce two new blogs to you I got the following message: 550 5.7.1 Send quota exceeded, try again in 4294967295 seconds. Since I did not want you to wait for more than a million hours I called up Telekom's hot line.

And suddenly I felt myself beamed back into the 1990s when on RTL-television the comedians The Three with Their Caps (Die drei mit der [Telekom] Mütze) teased Telekom's lousy service and blunders. I spent nearly one hour on the line where they first told me that their colleagues had sold me the wrong product. That I denied for I had read all the small print with the promise of a nearly unlimited number of e-mails to be sent. Talking to a second guy he claimed that they had simply forgotten to change my e-mail account to the new rate. A third person said that they had not done anything at all up to now.

The following morning I stepped into one of Freiburg's four Telekom's local service points. It took the lady behind the counter half an hour to sort out the mess with the promise that in three days everything will be in order. And it was.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Blogging in German?

Kein Endlager Gorleben (Photo BZ)
German friends sometimes ask me: Why don't you blog in German? Well, I gave some reasons for my choice of English in my very first blog. Let me repeat it here: My blogs are meant to inform my American friends about what is happening in Freiburg and surrounding Germany, for many of them the land of their ancestors. Blogging in English also helps me keeping my knowledge of Shakespeare's idiom alive. Blogging in German I do too although not as frequently as in English in the form of letters to the editor of my favourite local journal, the Badische Zeitung (BZ).

Here comes a letter I lately sent dealing with one of my favourite topics: Endlagerung (the final disposal of highly active nuclear waste). I only mention it because for the first time the Badische Zeitung added a somewhat gruesome picture to my contribution. All those who read German click on the link above. They may stop here for in the following I shall just explain in English about what I wrote to the BZ.

Germany's minister for environment in Doha (dpa)
Our Federal Minister of Environment Peter Altmaier an unmarried workaholic - compensating his stress at hearth and home with some visible consequences but no myocardial infarction yet - proposed a moratorium on the search for a final depositary of nuclear waste from Germany's power reactors. This provisional stop shall last until next fall waiting for the outcome of our federal election. The proposal was hailed by all parties since nobody wants to load the political atmosphere with such an unpopular topic before the outcome of the election is known. Anyway, the explosiveness of this issue is only beaten by the discussions of how much it will cost the German tax payer to keep Greece in the euro zone. As an alternative, we are told, throwing the Greek out will lead to an euro collapse, i. e., doomsday.

Coming back to the moratorium. This is one of the tactics of politicians dulling the electorate's minds (das Stimmvolk verdummen). Nobody will gain in postponing the decision but everybody will lose in particular our Ministerpräsident (governor). It seems that neither abandoned salt mines like so far proposed in Germany nor granite formations favoured in the States are suited best for a "final disposal" of highly active nuclear waste. The choice tends towards Opalinus clay of which mighty deposits are found in Germany's south at the High Rhine along the border with Switzerland. Although building a depository in Baden-Württemberg will be a blow to our green Ländle it may open an opportunity to work with our neighbours. The Swiss too are considering to bury their nuclear waste along the same border. Will there again be an outcry not in my backyard or is there a chance of a common effort?