Celebrating the Benefits of Energy
I don't know if it was the L-tryptophan in the turkey, the wine I drank with it, or the fact that I was on the road or with family most of the past week, but somehow I could not muster the time or energy to post something during the Thanksgiving holiday. So on the theory "better late than never," I thought I'd share some thoughts that were inspired by the bountiful holiday table and the true intent and spirit of the holiday, which, believe it or not, is not to overdose on turkey and stuffing! Rather, it is to reflect on what we have to be thankful for. While this is ordinarily a very personal and private reflection for me, this year, it seems to me there are some thoughts that I must have in common with a lot of my professional colleagues.
For me, what we have to be thankful for is how much better our lives are than the lives of people in the days of the Pilgrims. In the 1600s, life was tough. A summer's yield from local farms could be wiped out by droughts, or insects, or fires, and a long, cold winter could lead to starvation. Water for everyday needs had to be hauled from streams or town wells. Disease was rampant. Homes were cold in the winter and hot in the summer. All of life's basic needs--food, water, firewood--required long hours of hard labor. The Pilgrims who came to the shores of the New World never again saw or spoke to the families and friends they left behind. Even letters were infrequent. The great chasm created by the Atlantic Ocean largely remained until almost modern times. My own ancestors, who came to the US about a hundred years ago, never returned again to the lands from which they had come. And it did not take an ocean to separate people. Early settlers who traveled more than a few hundred miles seldom, if ever, saw their families again.
How much different life is today! Advanced technologies, including energy technologies, help assure an adequate supply of food and water, of heat and electricity, of transportation and telecommunications. They have given us more freedom, comfort, and pleasure. They allowed me to travel hundreds of miles to be with family for a few days, and permitted us to enjoy a dinner with ingredients that came from many places.
While I am thankful for these things, I recognize that there are still problems. The comforts we enjoy are using up resources and dirtying the environment too fast and too much, and are not yet shared by all the world's people.
But another thing for which I am thankful is the ingenuity and creativity humankind. When I think of the profound changes in the way we live that have been accomplished in just a few hundred years, and the rapid pace at which they have changed even in my lifetime, I am confident that we can address the problems we face. The same creativity and ingenuity that led to automobiles and airplanes, telephones and television, computers and the Internet, satellites and nuclear power plants can surely improve on these same technologies. That same creativity and ingenuity can invent cleaner transportation fuels and electric power plants, smarter electrical grids, more efficient appliances, and technologies that are accessible to the developing world.
I realize that is a tall order. Not every technological development is successful, replacing existing systems is costly and takes time, and we sometimes find that fixing one problem makes another worse. Nevertheless, I am confident that we scientists and engineers have the capability to find solutions. It is therefore my hope that, some future Thanksgiving, my reflections will look back on today in wonder at how much further we will have come.