More Energy, Less Work (Part 1)

Posted on December 6, 2013


CarI’m a problem-solver. When I read or hear about something people are struggling with, I want to help them fix it. When they’re grappling with a difficult question, I want to help them answer it.

A few years ago, I learned that physicists still don’t know how gravity works. I decided that I was up to the task and was sure that I’d solve the mystery, despite the fact that I have no scientific background, and am completely baffled by our self-cleaning oven. What I’ve come up with so far is that gravity uses really long, invisible strands of glue that it shoots out in all directions through space. These strands travel at the speed of light, but somehow don’t make everything sticky along the way. They also aren’t very strong, which leads me to suspect that the actual force may be more like invisible post-it notes, but that’s only a recent conjecture. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to test my theory, because I’ve been busy looking for a solution to another dilemma, and one that’s even more urgent: the ever-worsening energy crisis.

Again, I’m not qualified to do any of this. I like to dabble though, and that’s a good thing, I think. Dabblers are the people who get things done. We don’t spend too much time focused on any one subject, including our own lack of credentials. We also don’t write dissertations or conduct long-term experiments or publish articles in scholarly journals. Those activities can slow you down like you wouldn’t believe, and after a while you can’t even remember what you were trying to do. Rather than in-depth probing and analysis, we prefer to flit around, just above the surface, indulging our endless curiosity and feeding our short attention spans. This allows us to combine ideas and come up with innovative approaches to vexing puzzles.

Back to the energy situation. Our main challenge is that we’re going to run out of oil. This seems like an obvious statement, but judging by the number of drivers I see on the road – especially when I have to get to the bank, or when I’m late for a dentist appointment — we haven’t begun to face reality. As part of my research, I visited the website of an organization called OPEC. I don’t know what OPEC is, but they seem to have something to do with oil, so I’ve decided to use them as a reliable source of information. According to OPEC, the world consumes eighty-five million barrels of oil every day. Can you even picture that? I can, but it isn’t easy. Here’s how I do it:

The country of Egypt has almost exactly eighty-five million people. I visualize in my mind that everyone in Egypt has gone outside to a big field somewhere. Not where the pyramids are, and not in downtown Cairo, but a place that has more room. They stand all lined up, uniformly spaced, so that they form a large rectangle. Then, when everyone is in position, I mentally replace each person with a barrel of oil. And that’s all there is to it. But remember: that’s how much oil we use every day. So tomorrow, we’ll have to go to Ethiopia or Vietnam and do the whole thing all over again.

Okay, now keep in mind that the Earth is a giant sphere, just under eight thousand miles in diameter. Are you having trouble picturing that, too? Here’s how I do it. I look at the globe sitting on my desk. It’s twelve inches across. Then I imagine that it’s getting bigger, like a balloon that I’m blowing up. When it gets to be 418 million times bigger, I stop blowing. And there it is.

The Earth is filled mostly with dirt. You may have already noticed this, especially if you have a flower garden, or if you’ve ever put on brand new white sneakers. It also has a lot of oil, rocks, bones, aluminum cans, priceless baseball cards from the early 1960s, and about two percent magnesium. If we continue to pump oil at the current rate, sooner or later, we’re going to empty out the planet. That’s a fact that no one can refute. If you fill your bathtub with water, then pull the drain plug, pretty soon the water will be gone. As much as I don’t care for experiments, I’ve actually tried this and it really works. And here’s the kicker: We’re using more oil all the time, because there are more people alive now than ever before, and a lot of them are driving those cars made in South Korea, which, I’m sorry to tell you, don’t get anywhere near the fuel economy that the salespeople always point to on the window stickers. Also, there’s not a lot of leg room in the back seat, but that’s a separate issue.