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Rants, Raves, Interesting Science & Awful Puns
November 23, 2007

Puzzling Guzzling

Without Muzzling

At http://www.rense.com/general79/mass.htm , Jeff Rense's news site carries a piece showing a street filled with the cars needed to carry a group of people posing in front, and below, the same group of people standing alongside a bus. The message, of course, is to impress on us the inefficiency of using all those cars and all that gas to transport so many people from A to B, when one bus can do the same job.

The fallacy is that it isn't the same job. The people are not all going from "A" to "B" but from places scattered all over the map to destinations in every other part of it. Imagining that a bus would usefully substitute for the portion of their routes that they happen to share--along which individuals are all the time joining and leaving--strikes me as a bit like looking inside a conduit packed with electrical wiring and asking why all the cores can't be replaced by one bar of solid copper.

Despite the problems, the fact remains that when it comes to going from anywhere to anywhere, anytime you like, with childen, the dog, an arthritic grandmother, and a half dozen bags, nothing comes close to competing with the private automobile. And beyond just the personal convenience, in place of the squalid, overcrowded tenement cities that clung around railheads until the early part of the twentieth century, we see thriving communities opened up in places that were inaccessible.

There are others, of course, who aren't so enamored about having "their" beaches and forests invaded by the likes of the peasantry, and applaud as the $100 barrel of oil comes within sight--an ideology that doubtless receives plenty of encouragement from those sitting on untapped reserves quadrupling in value while the competition is bombed out of existence. But as with most of the things we lament about, it's largely self- inflicted. As I've said under Energy, hydrogen and carbon are common enough elements, and with appropriate motivation I'm sure our professors of chemistry and engineering could figure out ways of configuring molecules capable of locking up as many miles per gallon as gasoline--maybe enough, even, to make it not worth drilling the natural stuff out of the ground anymore. The key to making it economic is having a source of suitably high energy density--which means nuclear. Forget windmills and solar fatasies. Inexpensive high energy density is also the way to achieve economic desalination of seawater, answering another looming shortage that we're hearing about, which has to be the ultimate nonsense on a planet aqueous to the extent of five sixths of its surface. So why not a program of construcing a series of coastal nuclear complexes producing synthetic liquid fuels as a replacement for gasoline and using the ocean as their source of hydrogen and carbon, desalinating seawater on an industrial scale and producing the power to pump it where it needs to go, and distributing electicity as a byproduct? Makes more sense to me than using all that money and know-how to destroy countries that would make better customers.

Ultimately, that kind of direction is the only way to go. Winston Churchill once said that you can always count on Americans to do the right thing--but only after they've tried everything else first. I've often expressed agreement with Arthur C. Clarke that while the Apollo program was a magnificent achievement of engineering and no one would want to belittle it, at root it was a political stunt and happened 40 years too soon. Maybe, under the unnatural pressures of wartime, the Manhattan Project had a similar effect on nuclear technology.

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