On the water-fueled car.

On the water-fueled car.

“I heard there was, like, a car that runs on water … “

“Dude, no, there’ve been, like, six of them.  But oil companies bought all the patents.”

A lot of the people who attend my poetry class in jail believe in freaky conspiracy theories.  Somebody started telling me that the plots of various Berenstain Bears books are different from when he was a child, which is evidence that the universe bifurcated and that he’s now trapped in an alternate timeline from the path he was on before …

old hat(New printings of some Berenstain Bears books really are different.  Take Old Hat New Hat, a charming story about shopping and satisfaction: after the protagonist realizes that he prefers the old, beat-up hat he already owns to any of the newer, fancier models, a harried salesperson reacts with a mix of disgust and disbelieve.  This scene has been excised from the board book version that you could buy today.  Can’t have anything that tarnishes the joy of consumerism!)

I’ve written about conspiracy theories previously, but I think it’s worth re-iterating, in the interest of fairness, that the men in jail are correct when they assume that vast numbers of people are “breathing together” against them.  Politicians, judges, police, corporate CEOs and more have cooperated to build a world in which men like my students are locked away.  Not too long ago, it would have been fairly easy for them to carve out a meaningful existence, but advances in automation, the ease of international shipping, and changes to tax policy have dismantled the opportunities of the past.

Which means that I often find myself seriously debating misinterpretations of Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” theory (described midway through my essay, “Ashes”), or Biblical prophecies, or Jung-like burblings of the collective unconsciousness.

Or, last week, the existence of water cars.

In 2012, government officials from Pakistan announced that a local scientist had invented a process for using water as fuel.  At the time, I was still running a webcomic – one week’s Evil Dave vs. Regular Dave focused on news of the invention.


When scientists argue that a water-powered car can’t exist, they typically reference the Second Law of Thermodynamics (also discussed in “Ashes”).  The Second Law asserts that extremely unlikely events occur so rarely that you can safely assume their probability to be zero.

If something is disallowed by the Second Law, there’s nothing actually preventing it from happening.  For an oversimplified example, imagine there are 10 molecules of a gas randomly whizzing about inside a box.  The Second Law says that all 10 will never be traveling in the exact same direction at the same time.  If they were, you’d get energy from nothing.  They might all strike the north-facing wall at the same time, causing the box to move, instead of an equal number hitting the northern and southern facing walls.

But, just like flipping eight coins and seeing them all land heads, sometimes the above scenario will occur.  It violates the Second Law, and it can happen.  Perpetual motion machines can exist.  They are just very, very rare.  (Imagine a fraction where the denominator is a one followed by as many zeros as you could write before you die.  That number will be bigger than the chance of a water-fueled car working for even several seconds.)

When chemists talk about fuel, they think about diagrams that look roughly like this:


The y axis on this graph is energy, and the x axis is mostly meaningless – here it’s labeled “reaction coordinate,” but you wouldn’t be so far off if you just think of it as time.

For a gasoline powered car, the term “reactants” refers to octane and oxygen.  Combined, these have a higher amount of energy stored in their chemical bonds than an equivalent mass of the “products,” carbon dioxide and water, so you can release energy through combustion.  The released energy moves your car forward.

And there’s a hill in the middle.  This is generally called the “activation barrier” of the reaction.  Basically, the universe thinks it’s a good idea to turn octane and oxygen into CO2 and H2O … but the universe is lazy.  Left to its own devices, it can’t be bothered.  Which is good – because this reaction has a high activation barrier, we rarely explode while refueling at the gas station.

Your car uses a battery to provide the energy needed to start this process, after which the energy of the first reaction can be used to activate the next.  The net result is that you’re soon cruising the highway with nary a care, dribbling water from your tailpipe, pumping carbon into the air.

(Your car also uses a “catalyst” – this component doesn’t change how much energy you’ll extract per molecule of octane, but it lowers the height of the activation barrier, which makes it easier for the car to start.  Maybe you’ve heard the term “cold fusion.”  If we could harness a reaction combining hydrogen molecules to form helium, that would be a great source of power.  Hydrogen fusion is what our sun uses.  This reaction chucks out a lot of energy and has non-toxic byproducts.

But the “cold” part of “cold fusion” refers to the fact that, without a catalyst, this reaction has an extremely steep activation barrier.  It works on the sun because hydrogen molecules are crammed together at high temperature and pressure.  Something like millions of degrees.  I personally get all sweaty and miserable at 80 degrees, and am liable to burn myself when futzing about near an oven at 500 degrees … I’d prefer not to drive a 1,000,000 degree hydrogen-fusion-powered automobile.)

Seriously, I would not want this to be happening beneath the hood of the family ride.

With any fuel source, you can guess at its workings by comparing the energy of its inputs and outputs.  Octane and oxygen have high chemical energies, carbon dioxide and water have lower energies, so that’s why your car goes forward.  Our planet, too, can be viewed as a simple machine.  High frequency (blue-ish) light streams toward us from the sun, then something happens here that increases the order of molecules on Earth, after which we release a bunch of low-frequency (red-ish) light.

(We release low-frequency “infrared” light as body heat – night vision goggles work by detecting this.)

Our planet is an order-creating machine fueled by changing the color of photons from the sun.

A water-fueled car is impractical because other molecules that contain hydrogen and oxygen have higher chemical energy than an equivalent mass of water.  There’s no energy available for you to siphon away into movement.

If you were worried that major oil companies are conspiring against you by hiding the existence of water-fueled cars, you can breathe a sigh of relief.  But don’t let yourself get too complacent, because these companies really are conspiring against you.  They’re trying to starve your children.

On ‘The Theft of Fire.’

On ‘The Theft of Fire.’

Stories are powerful things.  A world in which workers are brought into a country as farmhands is very different from one in which barbaric kidnappers torture their victims to extract labor.  A world in which death panels ration healthcare is different from one in which taxpayers preferentially fund effective medical care.

You’ll feel better about your life if you sit down and list the good things that happened to you each day.  There’s only one reality, but countless ways to describe it.

Like most scientists, I love stories of discovery.  These stories also reflect our values – many years passed before Rosalind Franklin’s role in the determining the structure of DNA was acknowledged.  Frontal lobe lobotomy was considered so beneficial that it won the Nobel Prize – sane people didn’t have to tolerate as much wild behavior from others.  Of course, those others were being erased when we ablated their brains.

Even equations convey an ideological slant.  When a chemist writes about the combustion of gasoline, the energy change is negative.  The chemicals are losing energy.  When an engineer writes about the same reaction, the energy change is described as positive.  Who cares about the chemicals?  We humans are gaining energy.  When octane reacts with oxygen, our cars go vrrrooom!

I’ve been reading a lot of mythology, which contains our oldest stories of discovery.  The ways we tell stories haven’t changed much – recent events slide quickly into myth.  Plenty of people think of either George W. Bush or Barrack Obama as Darth-Vader-esque villains, but they’re just regular people.  They have myriad motivations, some good, some bad.  Only in our stories can they be simplified into monsters.

In Ai’s poem, “The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” she writes that

512px-JROppenheimer-LosAlamosI could say anything, couldn’t I?

Like a bed we make and unmake at whim,

the truth is always changing,

always shaped by the latest

collective urge to destroy.

Oppenheimer was a regular person, too.  He was good with numbers, and his team of engineers accomplished what they set out to do.

My essay about the ways we mythologize discovery was recently published here, alongside surrealistically mythological art by Jury S. Judge.

theft of fire

On ‘Cat’s Cradle’ and whether or not it’s sci-fi.

On ‘Cat’s Cradle’ and whether or not it’s sci-fi.

The bookshelves at the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project are chaotic.  Not everyone who volunteers there is a big reader, so sometimes people don’t know where a book might belong.  But the bigger problem is with books themselves.  Most — especially the good ones — are about more than one thing.

The shelves have vague categories to make it easier to find a book that’ll be enjoyed by, say, a prisoner who wants to read about Norse mythology, or about classic cars, or about gardening, etc.  But many books could reasonably fit in several different places.  I always use the rule of thumb, “Where would I look for this if I was filling a package for somebody who’d love it?”, but, even then, somebody else’s brain might leap to different ideas after reading the exact same inmate’s letter.

Last week, for instance, a few of us spent a minute arguing about Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.  Not a real argument, mind you, just the kind of friendly debate that people use to distract themselves from feeling sad about the fact that they’re filling a package for a 32-year-old dude who’s been in jail since he turned 19 for possession of small amounts of cocaine.  A little levity helps sometimes.

Image by wplynn on Flickr.

So, Cat’s Cradle?  I say “literary fiction.”  Second choice, “classics.”  But another well-read volunteer said, “sci fi.”  She forwarded the evidence of “ice-9,” a special type of water crystal that could destroy the world.

The book is definitely speculative.  You don’t need to worry that someone will drop a small seed crystal of ice-9 into the ocean and cause everyone to freeze.  But it’s very mildly speculative, I’d say.  Less so that the imaginary drugs in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, for instance, or the elevators in Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, or even the packing density of folded paper in Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age.  All of those, to my knowledge, are very rarely considered to be science fiction.

Not only does Cat’s Cradle seem to be less speculative than any of those, but it also features some of my favorite writing about how the general populace interacts with scientific findings.  Consider this passage from early in the book, where the narrator has gone to investigate a famous recently-deceased scientist.

“He was supposed to be our commencement speaker,” said Sandra.

          “Who was?” I asked.

          “Dr. Hoenikker–the old man.”

          “What did he say?”

          “He didn’t show up.”

          “So you didn’t get a commencement address?”

          “Oh, we got one.  Dr. Breed, the one you’re gonna see tomorrow, he showed up, all out of breath, and he gave some kind of talk.”

          “What did he say?”

          “He said he hoped a lot of us would have careers in science,” she said.  She didn’t see anything funny in that.  She was remembering a lesson that had impressed her.  She was repeating it gropingly, dutifully.  “He said, the trouble with the world was…”

          She had to stop and think.

          “The trouble with the world was,” she continued hesitatingly, “that people were still superstitious instead of scientific.  He was if everybody would study science more, there wouldn’t be all the trouble there was.”

          “He said science was going to discover the basic secret of life someday,” the bartender put in.  He scratched his head and frowned.  “Didn’t I read in the paper the other day where they’d finally found out what it was?”

          “I missed that,” I murmured.

          “I saw that,” said Sandra.  “About two days ago.”

          “That’s right,” said the bartender.

          “What is the secret of life?” I asked.

          “I forget,” said Sandra.

          “Protein,” the bartender declared.  “They found out something about protein.”

          “Yeah,” said Sandra, “that’s it.”

Vonnegut beautifully captures the way science is often treated in the popular press.  Exceedingly important, graced with insight about the secret of life… and yet still the purvey of weirdos.  Other people.  For the masses, it’s enough to read that scientists have discovered something or other, forget the details, and carry on with their lives.

I mean, I do this too.  I read an article that there might be another planet in our solar system — five or so other astronomical objects have peculiar orbits, suggesting that they’ve been influenced by a heavy, perhaps planet-sized, object — nodded, murmured “That’s nice,” but didn’t feel a thing.

Or there was — and this is even closer to the “secret of life” gag in Vonnegut’s passage — the time when I read that astronomers had tallied the Doppler shifts for many distant objects and decided that our universe will not be collapsing in on itself. The current best guess for how the universe will end is that expanding space will push everything apart faster and faster until emptiness abounds. The universe will be dark, every particle lonely and cold.

I read about all that, thought, “Whoa, that’s heavy,” and drew a comic strip. That’s all, though. Unveiled secrets of the universe didn’t change how I live my life.


So, the science behind ice-9?  It’s pretty standard thermodynamics.  When water freezes, there are several different configurations it might solidify into, and each of these has a slightly different stability.  Vonnegut’s ice-9 is a hypothetical configuration that is very stable but difficult to form.

Image by wplynn on Flickr.

Describing this to math and numbers people — to scientists — is pretty easy.  I’d draw a graph that shows a deep valley hidden by a mountain.  I’d say “this is the energy level diagram for ice-9, and even though water would be happiest in its lowest-energy state, it can’t get there because it’d pass through such a high-energy transition state.”  If you were a scientist, you’d nod sagely — “yes yes, we learned all this as undergraduates.”  If you’re not, I can only assume that your eyes would glaze over with boredom.

So here’s an analogy instead: qwerty computer keyboards are ridiculous.  They were designed to make people type slowly.  A world in which everyone used an efficient keyboard layout would be better.  But the process of changing everything would be aggravating.  Having to remember two different layouts — because the computers at the public library would presumably still have qwerty keyboards long after you’d upgraded your rig at home — would make our fingers slow and sloppy.

Or those early white settlers traveling westward through America.  If they could reach California, they’d be living easy.  The weather’s nice, the soil fertile.  But there were dangerous mountains in the way.  While crossing those mountains (my information here comes solely from the Oregon Trail computer game), people were dropping left & right (and having naughty words engraved on their tombstones) from dysentery.

Vonnegut proposed, though, that a seed crystal of ice-9 would lower the energy barrier of that transition state.  This is a pretty common phenomenon, actually.  Ice-9 works the same way as mad cow disease.  Prions are a protein configuration more stable than the functional form but difficult to reach.  Once a small amount of the protein assumes that new configuration, though, it can catalyze the mis-folding of all the rest in your brain.

Just like the suddenly-solid oceans at the end of Cat’s Cradle, prions freeze up the brain.  Then the brain stops working.  Then you’re all done being alive.

A human prion protein.

Just you, though.  Ice-9 killed everybody.  So, sure, Cat’s Cradle is sci-fi-esque.  But quite realistic.  Plus — and I suppose this is the biggest reason why I wouldn’t call it science fiction — Vonnegut wastes little time explaining how his speculations work.  You can believe him or not — yes, his ideas are reasonable, but he feels no imperative to prove that to you.  Instead he introduces the mild speculation as a way to investigate how people behave.

Vonnegut winks at his readers.  At the beginning of the book his character dutifully recites that if everyone studied science more, the world’s troubles would be over.  But Vonnegut himself glosses over the science of his world, instead lavishly describing the philosophies that arose in response to the discovery of ice-9.

I think the dude’s priorities are in the right place.  I mean, look at our society.  We’re spending huge amounts of money investigating rare childhood diseases, or the routine maladies of age… but we spend a pittance on childhood nutrition, which would benefit people far more.  Our society’s biggest problems are philosophical.  We don’t help those children: they earned their fate by choosing to be born poor.