Adventures in Ethics and Science

This week, we finally get to the elder Free-Ride offspring’s part of last-week’s bath-night conversation about energy. Here’s the audio of the discussion, complete with splashing bathwater and odd squawks from my computer.

For those who prefer words on the screen, the transcript is below.


Dr. Free-Ride: What do you know about energy?

Elder offspring: What do you mean, energy?

Dr. Free-Ride: I don’t know, I guess if I was going to ask you, what kind of energy sources are you aware of …

Elder offspring: Oh, there’s nuclear power, there’s solar power, there’s wind power, there’s water power.

Dr. Free-Ride: Goodness gracious.

Elder offspring: There’s also electricity.

Dr. Free-Ride: Sure.

Elder offspring: And maybe even sound power.

Dr. Free-Ride: Sound power, huh?

Elder offspring: And heat.

Dr. Free-Ride: Geothermal? What kinds of things do we do with energy?

Elder offspring: We use it for lights and for our baths.

Dr. Free-Ride: Mmm hmm.

Elder offspring: And for your computer.

Dr. Free-Ride: Sure.

Elder offspring: And, well, we use energy to help us live easier.

Dr. Free-Ride: Sure.

Elder offspring: We use it to cook our food.

Dr. Free-Ride: Mmm hmm. Absolutely.

Elder offspring: And to see.

Dr. Free-Ride: Well –

Elder offspring: When it’s dark.

Dr. Free-Ride: OK, I was going to say, our bodies use energy –

Elder offspring: And we use it in hearing aids to hear.

Dr. Free-Ride: What’s that?

Elder offspring: Hearing aids TO HEAR!

Dr. Free-Ride: OK, I was kidding. Do you know the difference between what they call alternative energy sources and, I guess, the non-alternative ones, which maybe you’d call conventional?

Elder offspring: Uhhh, no.

Dr. Free-Ride: No? Of all the energy sources you named earlier, do you know which ones people are more excited about these days?

Elder offspring: Nuclear.

Dr. Free-Ride: Nuclear? That’s interesting. So what do you know about nuclear power?

Elder offspring: Um, when they use enough of it, it becomes toxic waste, and they have to keep it in big pools of water to make sure it doesn’t cause radiation and unhealthy stuff like that.

Dr. Free-Ride: Sure, OK. So that’s sort of the consequences of nuclear power. Almost every power source that we’ve got has some downside. So, you know the downsides of coal and oil, right?

Elder offspring: Uh huh.

Dr. Free-Ride: What are they?

Elder offspring: That we won’t always have coal and oil.

Dr. Free-Ride: Uh huh, and even if we did, what happens when we burn them?

Elder offspring: It builds up carbon dioxide, and with more carbon dioxide there will be less and less oxygen until we can’t breathe any more.

Dr. Free-Ride: It may be more complicated than that, but yeah, we do have this problem with the products that are made when we burn what are called fossil fuels like oil and coal. There’s actually probably enough coal under the ground that we wouldn’t run out any time soon, but if we burned it all, we’d really mess up our air and our water a lot.

Elder offspring: People are going to make corn oil —

Dr. Free-Ride: Uh huh.

Elder offspring: — for cars.

Dr. Free-Ride: Sure, but you know what the problem with that is?

Elder offspring: They need to make cars that know how to run on corn oil.

Dr. Free-Ride: Well, OK, here’s one issue, and maybe you’re thinking of corn ethanol or other kinds of biofuels. Part of the problem is, using corn as a source, at least the way corn is conventionally grown, you have to put a lot of energy in to make the stuff that you’re going to burn. So you could spend almost as much energy making it as you’d get out of burning it — actually, maybe more. So that ends up not solving our problem too much, because we have to spend a lot of energy to make the stuff that will give us energy.

Elder offspring: But …

Dr. Free-Ride: But, yeah?

Elder offspring: Gasoline doesn’t just grow out of the ground.

Dr. Free-Ride: No, it’s true. Well, corn does, but it doesn’t just grow out of the ground.

Elder offspring: Well, you can’t take care of gasoline to make it grow up and sprout!

Dr. Free-Ride: Sure, you’d have to compost more dinosaurs to make gasoline, I understand that. And there are very few dinosaurs left to compost.

Elder offspring: Except the dead birdies.

Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah, well, we’re not going to be composting birdies in our back yard. That’ll attract cats. Part of why we haven’t grown corn yet? Corn is a very greedy plant.

Elder offspring: Greedy?

Dr. Free-Ride: Greedy! It requires a lot of fertilizer to grow, and it sucks a lot of nutrients out of the soil and leaves the soil poor, so that you have to plant something after the corn that gives back to the soil.

Elder offspring: Tomatoes?

Dr. Free-Ride: Ah, no. Tomatoes are kind of greedy as well, I think. Um, so beans, usually, are the kind of generous thing that give back after you grow ‘em.

Elder offspring: Can you plant corn and beans at the same time?

Dr. Free-Ride: Probably. You want to mix it up, make it harder for the pests to figure out what they’re eating. Yeah, I guess the tricky thing is, all this stuff that we use as fuel by burning it –

Elder offspring: You’re just creating more carbon dioxide.

Dr. Free-Ride: Well, I mean — yeah, so there’s waste products from the combustion, but there’s also the question of what do you have to do to make the stuff that releases a lot of energy when you burn it. And, if you haven’t got a lot of dinosaurs, or dinosaur-era plant matter to compost to make oil or coal, if you’re growing a plant, where does a plant get its energy?

Elder offspring: The soil.

Dr. Free-Ride: The soil. Where else?

Elder offspring: Water and the sun.

Dr. Free-Ride: The sun! Yeah, so the one source of energy that doesn’t seem like it’s going to run out for, you know, at least –

Elder offspring: Five billion years.

Dr. Free-Ride: I don’t know how many — you know, after our lifetimes by a good bit — is the sun. So if we could figure out a handy way to do solar, that might be easier than just finding new stuff to burn.

Elder offspring: Solar power.

Dr. Free-Ride: The problem is, to make the solar panels, the collectors, requires really rare elements that are also kind of scarce, so to make as much solar power as we’d need to power all the stuff we use right now (not us personally, but humans collectively), we’d run out of the stuff to make solar panels right quick. So maybe we have to figure out how to use less energy to do the stuff we want to do.

Elder offspring: Use less lights and open the curtains if its a sunny day?

Dr. Free-Ride: It’s almost like you’ve heard this before, repeatedly. Have you been trained, a little bit?

Elder offspring: I like opening the curtains.

Dr. Free-Ride: I do too, but you know what, at night it’s a good idea to close them. Do you know why?

Elder offspring: Why?

Dr. Free-Ride: ’cause that provides another little layer of insulation that keeps the heat from going out.

Elder offspring: So, then we can collect the heat.

Dr. Free-Ride: Kind of.

Elder offspring: And then, we can use it?

Dr. Free-Ride: Well, I mean, once the house is warm, we like to keep the warmth in, unless it’s summer, in which case we do everything we can to –

Elder offspring: Open the curtains.

Dr. Free-Ride: Well, actually, the house heats up if it’s very sunny and warm out, and then we might keep the curtains closed.

Elder offspring: What? Why?

Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah. It’s tricky. It’s tricky. Anyway.

Elder offspring: Well, this house doesn’t have air conditioning, and that –

Dr. Free-Ride: There’s a reason for that. In this part of the world, most of the time we don’t need it.

Elder offspring: Sure.

Dr. Free-Ride: And the couple of weeks of the year that we do, we can get by, and we can have dinner outside.

Younger offspring: Well the ants will get on it!

Dr. Free-Ride: Oh, the ants are not anything to worry about! You just gotta –

Younger offspring: They eat our food!

Dr. Free-Ride: Not hardly!

Younger offspring: It happened before!

Dr. Free-Ride: Oh, they just add protein. You got to eat faster than they do.

Elder offspring: And eat them, too.

Dr. Free-Ride: No, you guys are vegetarian, I guess eating the ants is out.

Elder offspring: I ate an ant once.

Younger offspring: Me too.

Elder offspring: It tasted bitter.

Dr. Free-Ride: Yes.

Elder offspring: I don’t want to repeat that experience.

Dr. Free-Ride: Well, then let’s not.

Comments

  1. #1 Alan Kellogg
    February 27, 2009

    ETD,

    Ethanol from corn has another problem besides taking lots of energy to produce, growing the corn to make ethanol from takes up land that could be used to grow corn for people to eat, other animals to eat, or left alone so just anything can grow there as long as it can without our help.

    No here’s something about oil and natural gas a lot of people don’t know. It seems there are very slow living bacteria way done deep in the crust which eat the minerals around them, powered by sulfer. But it takes them a real long time to do it. Where your cells take fractions of a second to get things done, these bacteria can take days, if not weeks.

    What they make is a very simple carbon compound, which is poisonous to them. This carbon based stuff rises through the crust until it it eaten by another type of bacteria. Once this bacteria is done with it you now have methane, which is also known as natural gas.

    When trapped beneath the right kind of rock the natural gas builds up, becoming thick and hot as the pressure builds. Over a real long time, millions of years, this stuff cooks int oil. The longer it cooks the heavier and thicker it gets. Kerosene and gasoline are that part of the oil that didn’t cook very long. Tar is the part of the oil that got cooked for a very long time.

    Now here’s something really gross you can tell your friends…

    You ever drink gasoline or kerosene it will remove, leach out the calcium in your bones. This will make your bones weak and real easy to bend. What we call rubbery. Mom’s bigger than you, and her bones have more calcium for their volume that yours do; so making her bones rubbery would take longer. YTD is smaller than you are, and her bones have less calcium for their volume, so rubberizing her bones would take less gasoline. And it cleans out your innards. So don’t drink gasoline.

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