How many margaritas can you blend with one kilowatt-hour of energy? How many solar panels would it take to power the world? What should every person know to be energy literate? The following tools offer a primer on energy, from the fun to the fundamental.
Which uses more energy–your fridge or your dishwasher? How many pieces of bread can you toast with one kilowatt-hour of energy? Find out in this interactive visualization from GE. It will even tell you how quickly an Energy Star appliance can pay for itself.
Which states produce the most coal power? Nuclear? Wind? And how does that electricity get from one state to another? Use this multi-layer visualization from NPR to find out.
How much land would we need to cover with solar panels to meet the entire world’s energy needs? The answer might surprise you. Find out in this visualization from LandArtGenerator.org.
How does energy consumption vary by location and land use? Find out in this interactive visualization that breaks down estimated energy consumption in New York City to the level of a single lot. Of course, areas with tall buildings use more energy per lot since they essentially have many lots stacked on top of each other.
This downloadable guide sponsored by the Department of Energy “identifies seven Essential Principles and a set of Fundamental Concepts to support each principle.” It serves as a stepping-off point for a much deeper exploration of energy, from its physical properties to its economic and environmental impacts.
Scientists have been waiting half a century for this moment.
In 1964, Peter Higgs and five other physicists postulated the existence of a subatomic particle and a corresponding energy field that would explain why particles have mass and therefore why they group together into atoms, planets, galaxies–and for that matter, humans.
The particle is formally called the “Higgs boson,” but it has received much attention in the media due to its provocative nickname, “the God particle.” The nickname comes from a 1993 book of the same name by physicist Leon Lederman and science writer Dick Teresi.
In the book, Lederman explains that the particle is “so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive, that I have given it a nickname . . .” With more than a bit of cheek, Lederman continues, “The publisher wouldn’t let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing.”
Professor Higgs isn’t too keen on the “God” nickname. When asked his opinion, he said, “It makes us look arrogant.” But then, he isn’t fond of the name “Higgs boson” either, given that the research leading to the particle’s discovery has been deeply collaborative.
Regardless of the best name for the particle, Lederman was right about one thing: the search for the particle has been slow and expensive. Ultimately, its detection depended on the construction of a machine known as the Large Hadron Collider. The LHC was built in a circular tunnel 17 miles long and more than 500 feet beneath the border of France and Switzerland, an undertaking that required 10 years and $9 billion euros.
Last week, amid much fanfare, scientists announced the first substantial proof of the existence of the Higgs boson. The discovery offers a chance to delve into the deepest questions about our universe, including where it came from and how it all holds together.
Faced with such a daunting task, I’ve decided to turn things over to the experts. Here are three of the best explanations I’ve found for the Higgs boson and what its discovery means for our understanding of the universe and our place in it.
First, this animated video from PhD Comics provides a lively look at particle physics and explains in simple language how researchers used the LHC to detect the elusive Higgs boson:
Second, this TED Talk by physicist Brian Cox captures the exhilaration of cutting-edge science and provides an inside look at the LHC’s construction:
Finally, for a more in-depth discussion of the Higgs boson discovery, listen to this 50-minute call-in show from Wisconsin Public Radio featuring David Derbes, a physics teacher who studied under Professor Higgs in the 1970s. It’s well worth the time to listen to Derbes’ perspective on the value of pure research and his personal insights into Professor Higgs as a scientist and a human being. And since it’s radio, you can listen while you cook dinner, clean the house, or build a particle accelerator in your basement.
I was camping in Acadia National Park last week, and being a landlocked Midwesterner, I was captivated by the daily rhythm of the tides. Acadia offers a particularly spectacular tidal show with the water rising as much as 12 feet between low and high tide. This got me wondering about the science behind tides.
Of course, I learned in elementary school that tides are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon on the oceans. But how exactly does that work? And what causes the tides to vary so much based on time and location? It turns out that tidal science is very complex. Tides are influenced by not only the moon’s gravity but also the sun’s gravity, the rotation of Earth, the shape of the ocean floor, and many other factors.
It’s fairly easy to understand why the gravitational pull of the moon would cause a bulge in the oceans on the side of Earth nearest the moon. It’s a little more complicated to understand why there is a similar bulge on the opposite side of Earth at the same time of day. To put it simply, the second bulge is caused by the rotation of Earth.
For some perspective, think about that classic county fair ride, the Gravitron, which spins fast enough that you find yourself pinned to the wall and able to turn sideways or even upside down without falling off. The same spinning forces cause the oceans to bulge out on the side of Earth opposite the moon. Scientists call this the “centrifugal,” or “center-fleeing,” force.
Most tides occur on a cycle of two high tides and two low tides every 24 hours and 50 minutes — the time it takes for the moon to circle Earth. However, in some regions, the shape of the ocean floor and the direction of the ocean currents result in only one high tide and one low tide per day. Other regions experience almost no tidal variation at all.
The tidal range at any given location varies throughout the lunar month. The sun, the moon, and Earth are in alignment when the moon is full or new. At these times of the month, the gravitational pull of the sun adds to the moon’s gravitational pull, causing larger than normal tides known as “spring tides.”
The sun and the moon are at right angles to each other when the moon is in the first or third quarter. At these times of the month, the gravitational pull of the sun partially cancels the moon’s gravitational pull, causing smaller than normal tides known as “neap tides.
The origin of the terms “spring” and “neap” are somewhat uncertain, but most accounts suggest that “spring” is related to “bursting” and “neap” to “scarcity.” At any rate, spring tides are not linked to the season of the same name.
There is a slight delay in the response of the oceans to the ever-changing gravitational field of the moon and the sun. Therefore, spring tides occur a day or two after the full or new moon and neap tides occur a day or two after the first or third quarter moon.
The record for the greatest tidal range goes to the Bay of Fundy on the eastern coast of Canada where the water rises as much as 56 feet between low and high tide. All of that water rushing in and out of the bay day after day represents a huge amount of energy, a fact that has not been lost on renewable energy developers.
Recent advances in tidal power technology offer the potential to harness tidal energy at a lower cost and with fewer environmental impacts than conventional energy sources. And unlike the wind or the sun, the tides can be predicted for years into the future. Sure as the Earth goes round the sun and the moon goes round the Earth.
Apologies for the long absence from this blog. I’ve been in Haiti where I was documenting progress on a reforestation project that I helped establish there in 2009. I’m excited with how far we’ve come and I’m hoping we can find the support we need to scale up our efforts within the next year.
Here’s an update from the field:
Earlier this month, the grassroots environmental group 350.org coordinated a day of awareness to connect the climate dots, showing climate change impacts from around the world. As I described in an earlier post, it is difficult to link any particular weather event to climate change, but the overall trends are clear. More droughts. More floods. More heat waves. More hurricanes.
“If this sounds apocalyptic, it is,” writes James Hansen in a recent New York Times op-ed. Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, continues, “The global warming signal is now louder than the noise of random weather. . . . We can say with high confidence that the recent heat waves in Texas and Russia, and the one in Europe in 2003, which killed tens of thousands, were not natural events — they were caused by human-induced climate change.”
350.org gets its name from 350 parts per million (ppm), the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere that scientists say will prevent dramatic and irreversible climate change. Currently, the atmosphere holds more than 390 ppm of CO2. Before the industrial revolution in the mid-1800s, it held 280 ppm.
What is particularly hopeful about 350.org’s work is its global approach. This is not a U.S. problem. Or a developed nation problem. Or a developing nation problem. This is a world problem. And it will take all of the cooperation and commitment we can muster to pull through this together.