(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘fertilizer

“Most things are never meant”*…

A coastal engineer collects a concentrated sample of algae and bacteria on Lake Erie in Toledo, Ohio

Protein-packed diets add excess nitrogen to the environment through urine, rivaling pollution from agricultural fertilizers…

In the U.S., people eat more protein than they need to. And though it might not be bad for human health, this excess does pose a problem for the country’s waterways. The nation’s wastewater is laden with the leftovers from protein digestion: nitrogen compounds that can feed toxic algal blooms and pollute the air and drinking water. This source of nitrogen pollution even rivals that from fertilizers washed off of fields growing food crops, new research suggests.

When we overconsume protein—whether it comes from lentils, supplements or steak—our body breaks the excess down into urea, a nitrogen-containing compound that exits the body via urine and ultimately ends up in sewage… the majority of nitrogen pollution present in wastewater—some 67 to 100 percent—is a by-product of what people consume…

Once it enters the environment, the nitrogen in urea can trigger a spectrum of ecological impacts known as the “nitrogen cascade.” Under certain chemical conditions, and in the presence of particular microbes, urea can break down to form gases of oxidized nitrogen. These gases reach the atmosphere, where nitrous oxide (N2O) can contribute to warming via the greenhouse effect and nitrogen oxides (NOx) can cause acid rain. Other times, algae and cyanobacteria, photosynthetic bacteria also called blue-green algae, feed on urea directly. The nitrogen helps them grow much faster than they would normally, clogging vital water supplies with blooms that can produce toxins that are harmful to humans, other animals and plants. And when the algae eventually die, the problem is not over. Microorganisms that feast on dead algae use up oxygen in the water, leading to “dead zones,” where many aquatic species simply cannot survive, in rivers, lakes and oceans. Blooms from Puget Sound to Tampa, Fla., have caused large fish die-offs…

If it’s not one thing, it’s another: “Eating Too Much Protein Makes Pee a Problem Pollutant in the U.S.,” from Sasha Warren (@space_for_sasha) in @sciam.

* Philip Larkin, “Going, Going” (in High Windows)


As we deliberate on our diets, we might recall that it was on this date in 1888 that Theophilus Van Kannel received a patent for the revolving door, a design that came to characterize the entrances of (then-proliferating) skyscrapers and that earned him induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. But lest we think him “all work,” his other notable invention was the popular (at least in the early 20th century) amusement park ride “Witching Waves.”

Theophilus Van Kannel’s patent drawing for a revolving door, 1888 [source]
Theophilus Van Kannel [source]

“The longer I live the greater is my respect for manure in all its forms”*…

Two crucial and interconnected resources—human feces and arable soil—face crises of mismanagement…

… the problem of how to deal with our “dark matter” has plagued humanity for millennia. As soon as people stopped moving around in pursuit of prey, the stuff began to pile up. Neolithic farmers may have had no idea of germ theory, but they were smart enough to know they didn’t want to live next to—or on top of—their own shit. They dug pits or ditches out in their fields to serve as open-air toilets. As the number of people living in close quarters grew, pits no longer sufficed. People turned to more sophisticated waste-disposal methods, usually involving water.

Sewage treatment plants… manage, by and large, to keep raw sewage out of waterways, and this has mostly eliminated outbreaks of cholera as well as typhoid. But the practice of washing nutrients down the drain remains as big an issue as ever.

Of all the nutrients we’re redistributing, probably the most significant is nitrogen. It’s difficult for plants—and, by extension, plant eaters—to obtain nitrogen. In the air, it exists in a form—N2—that most living things can’t utilize. For hundreds of millions of years, plants have relied on specialized bacteria that “fix” nitrogen into a compound they can make use of. When people started farming, they figured out that legume crops, which harbor nitrogen-fixing bacteria in nodules on their roots, replenish soil. Manure and human waste, or “night soil,” also provide nitrogen for plants.

When synthetic fertilizer was invented, in the early twentieth century, the world was suddenly awash in nitrogen. This enabled people to grow a lot more food, which, in turn, enabled them to produce a lot more people, who produced a lot more shit. Via our wastewater treatment plants, we now introduce vast quantities of nitrogen into coastal environments, where it’s wreaking havoc. (Fertilizer runoff also contributes to the problem.)

Jo Handelsman, a plant pathologist who runs an interdisciplinary research center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is also interested in “dark matter.” Handelsman, however, uses the term to refer to soil. And the problem she’s concerned with is not that we have too much of the stuff, but too little. “The plight of the world’s soils is a silent crisis”… Agriculture requires rich soil, but most modern practices are, unfortunately, terrible for it…

From the estimable Elizabeth Kolbert (@ElizKolbert) and @nybooks: “The Waste Land.”

Elizabeth von Arnim


As we go back to basics, we might recall that it was on this date in in 1874 that Lewis H. Latimer received his first patent (U.S. Patent 147,363), for an improved water-closet for railway cars.

Latimer went on to develop an improved process for manufacturing carbon filaments for light bulbs, to write the first book on electric lighting, and to invent an evaporative air conditioner, a forerunner of today’s systems.


“Regard your good name as the richest jewel you can possibly possess”*…


Argument over a Card Game by Jan Steen

Before people had an image, they had their honour. For much of history, little was more valuable than individual honour. ‘Better to die 10,000 deaths than wound my honour,’ as a character in Joseph Addison’s Cato, A Tragedy (1712) put it. In his bestselling Of Domesticall Duties (1622), William Gouge declared: “a good name is a most pretious thing.”

Despite the persistence of the word and a loosely related idea, the concept of honour, as earlier eras understood it, is so foreign to moderns that it can be hard to grasp. A stereotyped account holds that in early modern England a man’s honour was associated with a willingness to use violence to defend his name, while for women honour was about the maintenance of a proper sexual reputation.

But this is a very thin and misleading idea of honour in early modern England. Personal letters and diaries of elites indeed reveal a preoccupation with honour, a sense of its almost inestimable value. They also reveal that honour wasn’t just about violence among elite men or sexual propriety among elite women. Honour concerned one’s whole person. Likewise, it was less a static, overarching code of behaviour than a loosely defined concept with an array of meanings that could be variously privileged, one over another, with fluidity depending upon the needs and objectives of an individual in a given situation…

On the complicated business of living an honorable life: “The early moderns had their work cut out curating their honour.”

See also: “Ye of ‘Bad Faith’.”

* Socrates


As we wax nostalgic for a time when honor mattered most, we might send conflicted birthday greetings to a man whose life illustrated the early modern to modern transition from honor to image; Fritz Haber was born on this date in 1868.  The recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his invention of the Haber–Bosch process, a method used in industry to synthesize ammonia from nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas– thus enabling the production of more, more affordable, and more effective fertilizers, which in turn allowed millions to avoid starvation– Haber is equally well known as the Father of Chemical Warfare for his pioneering work developing and weaponizing chlorine and other poisonous gases during World War I, especially his actions during the Second Battle of Ypres.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 9, 2017 at 1:01 am

“War is progress, peace is stagnation”*…


Even if one doesn’t share Hegel’s copacetic take on conflict, one can observe that wars do, in fact, usually encourage bursts of technological innovation.  Indeed, most of us are pretty familiar (in both senses of the phrase) with the range of epoch-defining technologies that were a product of World War II: radar, radio navigation, rocketry, jet engines, penicillin, nuclear power, synthetic rubber, computers… the list goes on.

But we are perhaps a little less familiar with the advances– now so ingrained that we take them for granted– that emerged from World War I.  Readers will recall one such breakthrough, and its author: Fritz Haber, who introduced chemical warfare (thus lengthening the war and contributing to millions of horrible deaths), then used some of the same techniques– nitrogen fixation, in particular– to make fertilizer widely and affordably available (thus feeding billions).

Five other key developments at “The 6 Most Surprising, Important Inventions From World War I.”

* Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel


As we look for the silver lining, we might that it was on this date in 1917, “Army Registration Day,” that the draft was (re-)instituted in the U.S. for World War I.  Draft board selections were subsequently made, and conscription began on July 20.

These draft boards were localized and based their decisions on social class: the poorest were the most often conscripted because they were considered the most expendable at home.  African-Americans in particular were often disproportionately drafted, though they generally were conscripted as laborers.

Young men registering for conscription during World War I in New York City, New York, on June 5, 1917.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”*…


Historians are torn on how to judge Fritz Haber. Billions of people would not exist without him. And yet without him, World War I would have ended years earlier. Millions would have been spared a gruesome death and millions more a shattered life…

The story of the man who introduced chemical warfare, then three years later won the Nobel Prize for discovering how to capture nitrogen from the air (and thus, making fertilizer widely and affordably available): “The Tragedy of Fritz Haber: The Monster Who Fed The World.”

* Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


As we muse on Manichaeism, we might spare a thought for Paul Marie Eugène Vieille; he died on this date in 1934.  A chemist, he is best known for his invention of smokeless powder. Military commanders since the Napoleonic Wars had problems giving orders on a battlefield swathed in thick smoke from the gunpowder used by the guns. In 1886 Vieille invented a smokeless gunpowder called “Poudre B.”  Made from gelatinized nitrocellulose mixed with ether and alcohol, it was passed through rollers to form thin sheets, which were cut with a guillotine to flakes of the desired size.  Beyond clearing the view for battlefield commanders, it revolutionized the effectiveness of small guns and rifles: it was much more powerful than gun powder, giving an accurate rifle range of up to 1000 yards.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 14, 2017 at 1:01 am

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