Portraits of Wildflowers

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Archive for September 2nd, 2022

Cattails releasing seeds

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When I spent time at Round Rock’s Meadow Lake Park on August 24th I was happy to find that some of the cattails (Typha sp.) were shedding their numerous seeds. In the view above, the arcs of drying cattail leaves made the scene even more attractive to me. The slender green plants mixed in among the cattails are Symphyotrichum subulatum, known as baby’s breath aster, annual aster, eastern annual saltmarsh aster, Blackland aster, wireweed and hierba del marrano (which we might translate as pigweed).

The second picture shows something I don’t recall ever seeing before. My first thought was that this cattail stalk had split in an early stage of development and each piece went on to produce seeds. Now I’m wondering if the hanging piece might have broken off from the far side of the main seed head, though I think I looked at this from different positions and would have noticed such an obviously missing chunk. Mysteries.



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On August 24th Quillette published “The Energy of Nations” by John Constable and Debora Lieberman. The first two words in the article’s subtitle, “Energy blindness is leading to policy blunder,” refer to the fact that many people don’t understand what energy is:

Indeed, we hold surprisingly few scientifically accurate cognitive intuitions to guide decisions about the character of energy and its importance. Without science, we are more or less energy blind, in the same way, perhaps, that fish are blind to the idea of waterThis is to be expected, perhaps, since the concept of energy was a recent development in science, dating only from the early to mid-19th century. And part of the problem we have in understanding this concept is that it is extremely abstract. Energy isn’t a substance like coal or oil; rather, it is an abstract property of all substances, namely the capacity to cause change in the world—to do work, a potential measured in joules.

The next paragraphs make an important point:

Joules can be realised as a property of the chemical bonds in fossil fuels, the forces holding an atom together, moving objects such as flowing wind or water, electromagnetic solar radiation, and objects acting on each other through gravity. All have the capacity to cause change, but this capacity varies in both quantity, which is intuitively obvious, and much more importantly, its quality, its ability to do work, to change the world, and here the mind is particularly weak in grasping the essentials. Yes, there is a large quantity of energy in the sunshine and in the wind blowing around the globe. But that energy is of very low quality and not available to do much useful work. There is also a great deal of energy in the vibrating atoms in the objects around you in the room as you read this article, or in falling raindrops—lots of energy, yet all basically useless. Wind and sunlight are only a little better. There is a reason why no creatures make a living by extracting energy from the wind—the quality level is just too low—and there is a reason that the organisms that manage to build lives from solar energy, plants, are relatively simple and, generally speaking, stationary. There is only so much you can do with a low-quality form of energy like solar radiation at the surface of the Earth. Creatures that eat plants can be more complex; creatures that eat herbivores can be more complex still. 

The science of thermodynamics tells us that for a fuel to have high value to us, what matters is the quality, and that the fuel must have a very low degree of disorder (low entropy) if it is to support a complex society such as our own. But we have few intuitions of this, and our energy blindness requires us to rely on evidence and reason to tell us that fossil fuels are of high thermodynamic quality, as is fissile uranium. By comparison, the plentiful energy of renewables such as wind and solar is of low quality. In fact, both wind and solar radiation are so disordered that their entropy is close to that of low-temperature random heat, that is, the random movement of atoms and molecules. Their potential to do work—to cause change—is very limited.

Moreover, transforming sunlight and wind into grid electricity requires turbines and photovoltaic panels, themselves complex and expensive states of matter, as well as any number of ingenious and expensive grid kludges such as batteries to render it useable. That makes renewable energy intrinsically expensive. The sunshine and wind might be free, but not the extraction, conversion, and stable delivery to market.

You’re welcome to read the full article for more details. And you can find out a whole lot more in Alex Epstein’s book Fossil Future, which I finished reading a couple of weeks ago.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

September 2, 2022 at 4:27 AM

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