We live in a universe that is apparently ruled by one overarching force: energy.
Without energy, the universe would be much like I am first thing in the morning, when the rays of the new day (or the rains of the new day, this is Wales after all) invite me to join them – motionless and possibly snoring a little. What does the universe sound like when it snores? And are you really snoring if there is no-one there to hear it, because they have gone to sleep in the front room to escape the cacophony? Questions for another time, I think.
So, where was I? Ah, yes, the universe without energy. A cold, static affair like a Van der Graaf generator in a fridge. For humans, the most prevalent form of energy is, of course, electricity. Pretty much the whole planet is wired up, with the exception of the rain forest and parts of North Wales and this is an extraordinary thing. Until 1646, there wasn’t even a word for electricity – we have William Gilbert to thank for that. He was an English scientist who, not only realised that the core of the Earth was iron, but also invented peanut butter**, though not at the same time, at least not to begin with. Without him, we’d be saying “the bill for that nameless stuff that comes out the sockets in the walls has come and it’s huge! Now, use some of that nameless stuff that comes out the sockets in the walls to toast some bread and put some peanut butter on it, please!”
So, then I started to ponder Earth Hour, which was on 31 March this year. For an hour, we are all encouraged to turn off our nameless stuff…oh, yes electricity for an hour to save the planet or at least keep it going a little longer. If you look at http://www.earthhour.org/page/about/about-earth-hour you can learn more about what this is about. Cities across the globe go (almost) dark giving everyone an opportunity to realise how much we take electricity for granted and to bump, quite literally, into strangers.
We live in an electricity-state, an e-state if you will. There have been four of them to date, each one better than the last (maybe):
1st e-state – Come with me back to 1899. OK. Careful what you do with that flaming flaming torch! We are marching to the laboratory of Tesla to stop the advance of the “devil’s electrickery” which is threatening our sensibilities and our business as flaming torch makers (motto: “We won’t go out at night so you can”). Between Tesla and Edison, the World is on the brink of a massive change. Tesla has buried his electricity somewhere beneath our feet but we can still stop him, can’t we?
2nd e-state – Now, we are in Britain in 1978. Using a flaming torch, but this time with batteries, we are writing a letter of complaint to the electricity company about the power cuts. Already, we are dependent on the stuff. Pylons appear to stride resolutely across the countryside, although that may be the effect on an advert for the National Power company some 12 years later (why was a nationalised industry advertising? I have no idea…)
3rd e-state – Now, we are in Britain anytime in the last two years. Following high winds, we are using a laptop running on its batteries to write a letter of complaint to the electricity company about the power cuts. To see more clearly, we use Microsoft Flaming Torch V2.3 which crashes the machine. Again.
4th e-state – Today. You are your own electricity company with your own solar panels, micro-hydro and wind turbine. Sadly, it is night, in the middle of a drought and with not a breath of wind to move the blades. None of your batteries are charged and you can’t see a thing. You bitterly complain to yourself before falling into a snore-laden sleep.
Oh, for a flaming torch. Of any kind.
So, just for this second, give electricity a thought: where it comes from, where it goes and what it does in between. Nifty stuff, eh? And to think it nearly didn’t even have a name…
** No, he didn’t. He was too busy inventing useful words. PB was either invented by the Aztec Native Americans or Marcellus Gilmore Edson, depending on your historical point of view.