Monday, December 2, 2013

December 2nd, 2013

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

Once again, this past week I have been challenged by the (lack of quality) output of retained education around us. There are some bits of general knowledge that are supposed to be, well, GENERAL. That means that 'generally people should know it'. There are some questions that raise more questions than answers. Many of them may appear a little out of the ordinary, but frankly each of the questions we will look at this, and in coming weeks are relevant to our world, and our ability to understand not only where we have all come from, but where we are going. Generally, knowledge is about to be gained by some, and to be remembered or just checked off by others. Whatever it is, please ask some of these questions to your family, staff and especially to children and young people - and share the answers to ensure that learning takes place!

1. Where are the pyramids?

2. What is a volcano?

3. What is the composition of earths atmosphere?

Ok, so, how did you do? Maybe, as a regular reader of this newspaper you knew all three! But before you read the answers below, ask them to a few people around you....

1. Egypt is the country most renowned for its Pyramids. Many people I have spoken to do not seem to be aware that Egypt really is a country in (North) Africa. (They know that Egyptians play football though!). Interestingly, there are actually more pyramids, over 220, but generally smaller and more recently constructed, in Sudan (also an African country), but the Egyptian ones (less than 140 of them), are the most famous. Other pyramid structures are found around the world, and some which have been constructed in the last few years can be found, such as the Walter Pyramid in Long Beach California. When we refer to 'the pyramids' we generally refer to those ancient constructions found in Egypt. But what are the pyramids? They are massive, monument structures in the geometric shape of a pyramid! A geometric pyramid is a three dimensional shape with triangular sides, meeting to form a point at their apex. It can have three or more sides to its base. Four sided, or a square base, pyramids are the most common. They probably, originally, had a religious value in relation to worship of the Sun, and are shaped in reference to the rays of the sun. There are many mathematical, scientific and symbolic components - and they represent amazing engineering achievements in the many centuries before mechanisation! They were often used for burial chambers for the Pharaohs/Kings of the time, and although built a long time ago, are still amongst the largest constructions on the planet. The tallest Egyptian Pyramid is that of Cheops, also known as the Great Pyramid of Giza with a height of nearly 500ft - built around 2560BC! For the record it took thousands of years before a taller structure was built. What is most amazing is that 3500 years on, this building is still standing and still awe-inspiring. Oh, and for the record, the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt AFTER the pyramids were built, and that debunks many of the Hollywood movies stories (which I only recently learned were incorrect) about Hebrew slaves being used to build the Pyramids. But that is another story!

2. This question was sparked by the apparent construction of model volcanoes at roundabouts in Accra. I asked 'what are they doing putting volcano models in Accra for? To which so many people asked me 'what is a volcano?'... Surely, this is a standard learning material in primary schools about understanding our planet? Anyway... A volcano is a 'pressure relief valve' for the hot rock under the surface of the planet. We all live on a ball of hot dense materials. The earth is built up of layers, rather like an onion. We know that the core of the planet is much denser than the surface - we can calculate it quite easily, but not today. We live on the outer or surface layer called the crust. Below the crust there are pockets of molten rock which are quite close to the surface layer. As pressure builds in these so called 'magma chambers' it can burst upwards, spewing hot rock, ash and steam into the atmosphere above. Over time the hot rock cools and forms a cone shaped structure, with a crater at the top - which is where the next 'release of pressure' will come from. When a volcano throws out hot rock (lava), etc. it called an 'eruption'. Volcanoes erupt around the world on a fairly regular basis. One in Hawaii has been erupting for about 30 years, streaming molten rock into the sea - and still going! During strong, expulsive eruptions large quantities of volcanic dust can be ejected many thousands of feet into the air, and can affect aircraft navigation and even reduce surface temperatures through the dust cloud blocking the sun's rays from reaching earth. For the record, the core of our planet contains a lot of iron. Without the massive iron core of our planet, we would die. Our iron core provides the magnetic field that helps keep our atmosphere around us and protects us from many threats from solar activity. It also provides the field that allows our navigation compasses to work - and probably the source of navigation for the migratory animals on the planet

Understanding that volcanoes exist, and the inherence to all that keeps us alive, is important general knowledge.

3. The most common answer I get to this question is 'Oxygen'. WRONG. The atmosphere of planet earth is approximately 78% nitrogen (N2), 21% Oxygen (O2), 0.95% Argon (Ar) and 0.05% Carbon Dioxide (CO2) - plus some tiny amounts of other gases such as ozone, methane, neon and helium. It is one of the amazing things about the planet earth - it keeps its atmosphere, its water, oxygen, etc, without it blowing away in the solar winds that ravage the space all around us, thanks to that dense 'rich-in-iron core' structure of our planet. The belief that we breath 'oxygen' is clearly false, because if the atmosphere on earth were pure oxygen we would soon be engulfed by raging fires and metal structures would corrode faster that ever - possibly sparking away like fireworks! It is the relatively high percentage of Nitrogen gas in our atmosphere that balances the oxygen that we need, as we breathe, and keeps us alive. Breathing 'only oxygen' can result in death, as can 'no oxygen', we need just the right amount! Underwater divers, who breathe special mixtures of Oxygen and Nitrogen called Nitrox, need special training to identify and avoid 'Oxygen poisoning'! Pilots must adjust their oxygen supplies based on altitude and supply method to avoid health issues - even death. Yes, oxygen can kill you!

We only fear what we do not understand, and if we do not hold a good grasp of our maths, science and history, we are handicapped in our ability to progress.

Share some knowledge today - and seek out the implications of it all!

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

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