Friday, April 25, 2008

Notes From My Knapsack 5-4-08
Jeff Gill

Sometimes You Just Say “I Don’t Know”

We had a power outage at Sycamore Lodge recently, and I was delighted to be able to fall back directly on battery clocks strategically placed, flashlights, ditto, and candles were ready to augment had we gone past sunset.

What I realized we didn’t have in place was a good general purpose radio on battery power. All our battery operated radios right now are little earbud widgets, which you can’t set up on the kitchen counter while figuring out breakfast on an electricity-free morning.

Thanks to Pandora on the internet, my radio habit anymore is in the car or online, and the broadband router needs power, even with the laptop batteries at full charge.

So I thought I knew we were set for a power outage, and having one reminded me of how much I don’t know, but just assume.

Life’s full of stuff like that, and some of it just doesn’t bear looking at – but we should. Peering intently at the limits of our knowledge shouldn’t promote know-nothing-ism, but it does offer a leavening dose of humility.

Electricity, for instance. Ben Franklin started to figure out how this natural phenomenon worked with Leyden jars (a primitive storage battery) and a silken cord on his kite. How does today’s electrical system work, sending the energy from turning turbines out of coal-burning boilers down the high tension wires to the neighborhood grid to my toaster?

Having lots of electrical engineering students on my hallway at Purdue University, I learned the disturbing fact that we don’t actually know how power transmission works. Hey, we know that it does – Charles Steinmetz, a figure from GE’s earliest history worth looking up, did a Ben Franklin II with lightning strikes in his summer cottage – and engineers have carefully mapped and charted what happens, even if we can’t quite explain how it does what we observe it doing.

So we set up a kind of watershed dynamic with powerlines and outlets and inputs, but sometimes it does stuff that we can only guess at for causes and reasons. The power flows, usually, mostly, and for now that’s good enough.

That coal we burn to make much of our power? Thanks to fossils in the coal beds and those adjoining the seams of anthracite and bituminous, geologists have a very good idea how coal is formed from (largely) the pollen of ancient primitive plants, best represented today by horse-tail, also known as pot-scrubber plant to Boy Scouts, in roadside ditches (equisetum to the scientists).

But oil? There are some very interesting theories out there, and which one is correct will help to predict exactly how much more petroleum we can expect to find and recover, but the fact of the matter is that we don’t know what crude oil is made from or how it’s formed. Which hasn’t kept us from building a global economy on the stuff.

Nor has the problem of flight kept us from building an amazing air traffic network and sophisticated baggage retrieval systems (in this usage, retrieval means “Ha!”). Every school child knows that, according to the principles of physics, bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly.

It’s worse than that.

You know the picture you learned in school, of a wing cross-section, with lift and airflow and all that explaining why a plane lifts off the ground in take-off and stays aloft? It’s a useful fiction, but it actually doesn’t work in mathematical models, either. That’s not why planes do, in fact, fly. Aeronautical engineers continue to pursue a theory that will add up to enough lift and momentum for a plane to fly – even as they still do.

Are fundamental bits of reality waves, or particles? It depends, and the answer seems to be both, anyhow. Fine. And while evolution has marvelous explanatory and predictive power in the natural world, allowing us to treat illness and make drugs and breed cute little ponies and make sense of this interconnected world, it doesn’t even touch the question of where organic life came from.

The whole “lightning bolts in organic soup” thing many folks think they know and believe is part of evolutionary theory got tossed long ago, and the question is still very much in play, if you’re thinking of topics for an organic chemistry PhD.

And what came before the Big Bang? Even Steven Hawking doesn’t have a guess. Where do all the batteries disappear to in my house? I haven’t a clue. There’s much we just don’t know.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him what you don’t know at

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