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Wednesday
Aug032011

Energetic Observations

While flying from O’Hare in Chicago last week on my way to Omaha, the first stage of a flying and driving trip that would take me to the gorgeous town of Red Oak, Iowa, to deliver a workshop, three images presented themselves to me that were remarkably related. The first was just outside of Chicago as we were climbing to cruising altitude. Call me weird, but I usually play a game when I’m either taking off or landing, and it goes like this: from the time the pilot announces that we’re descending through 10,000 feet on our way down, or from the moment of take-off until we clear 10,000 feet on ascent, I count baseball fields. Silly, I know, but consider this: My record (so far) occurred while flying to Washington Dulles from Chicago. Field count on descent: 182. And that’s only looking out one side of the airplane (One of my rules).

Now consider this: While baseball fields vary somewhat in size, there are certain standards that must be met. For instance, the distance from home plate to the pole that designates the “end” of the foul line in the outfield must be at least 325 feet. That means that one baseball field (and we’re not talking about a professional field here), taking into account the area of the outfield, the bleachers, and whatever other miscellaneous space is required, covers about 160,000 square feet, which is roughly equal to 3.67 acres. That means that between Washington DC and Chicago, there are 668.5 acres of baseball fields. That’s just over a square mile…and apropos of nothing. Just an interesting point, because the other day I got distracted from my ball field counting by a large circular structure that we passed over, which turned out to be the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, otherwise known as Fermilab. What I was seeing was the Tevatron Ring, which is the final stage of three that accelerate subatomic particles to 70% the speed of light in pursuit of a better understanding of the fundamental nature of – well, nature. This is the place where atoms are split, and the resulting wreckage is studied to develop a better sense of the origins of the universe, among other things. It also gives us a better understanding of energy and what it really, truly is. (I should also point out that this is where the Bottom Omega Baryon was discovered, as we all know. I have two in my basement, just in case.

Scarcely a half-hour later we were overflying the vast green expanse of Iowa, and far below I saw wind turbines – hundreds of them, spinning slowly. A little research when I got to my hotel informed that Iowa produces a remarkable 4,000 megawatts of power from its wind farms, and that number is expected to increase as the number of turbines and the efficiency of the blade arrays increase.

Flying into Omaha, I was shocked to see the destruction caused by the flooded Missouri River. After overflowing its banks it spread out like a chocolate blanket, engulfing everything, leaving nothing but the tops of silos and the roofs of farm houses showing. A few minutes later I was shocked to see a highway disappearing into the flowing water. The two sides of the road just disappear into the depths, and it’s pretty easy to imagine that the constant flow over many days has undermined the submerged roadway. It will no doubt have to be completely rebuilt.

Several years ago, I read a wonderful book by John McPhee called “The Control of Nature.” As I photographed all of these things, I couldn’t help but think of that marvelous book, in which the author describes the many ways in which humans have futilely attempted to - well, control nature. He talks about vain attempts to change the flow of Icelandic lava, and to change the course of the Mississippi. What I witnessed through my D3 viewfinder in that short 90-minute flight was interesting. First I saw a place where we attempt to break matter into its component energy parts so that we can understand it. Then, I saw how we create energy by harnessing wind so that we can use it. And finally, I saw the devastation caused when the natural energy of a river, despite all efforts to the contrary, rebels against our attempts to control it. In the battle of hubris against nature, nature wins every time.

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