The Meaning of Words

The wind is free and fossil fuels are finiteThis simple declarative statement illustrates a point about human language and logic.  We can string words together that sound smart, even clever, and certainly true.  If we take the time to consider the meaning, we often find flaws and fallacies in what we say.  Conversely, if we don’t carefully consider the arguments we hear or utter, we might be fooled by others or by ourselves.   On its own, a sentence like this may be true, but the message it conveys may be false, misleading, or even absurd.

This sentence argues in favor of wind turbines as a superior source of energy.  The commenter believes this, and in that sense is just being honest.  It is difficult to challenge this statement because we do experience wind at no cost, and the abundance of fossil fuels could never be described as infinite.  The writer opposes the continued reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas.  It was posted as a comment about a recent German research study that focused on the possible harmful effects to humans and other life from low frequency sound waves near large wind farms.

It is not important who made this statement.  I don’t know this person who is apparently well educated having earned advanced degrees in the field of climate science.  I often read articles on this website, and frequently read comments by this person.

We all do this:  we say something that sounds good, but upon further review, we find the message was confusing.  In the present case, the sentence may be true, but the message it conveys is not.  I am sure that Aristotle would describe this as a kind of fallacy using nice sounding Latin words—something like argumentum non sequitur.  Each half of the sentence by itself is arguably true, but put together they create a false illusion by begging unstated questions.  Are fossil fuels not free?  Is wind infinite?

Experiencing the wind may be free, but converting wind energy to a form that we can use is not.  In fact, it is more expensive than burning fossil fuels and certainly less reliable.  It may also be harmful to birds and other life, including human life.  Furthermore, it requires extensive surface area that may have a high cost, in dollars and in environmental impact.

Fossil fuels are finite, but so is the wind.  And not all fuels are fossil fuels, not even all carbon-based fuels, are fossil fuels.  In fact, the term “fossil fuels” is a misnomer that is used wrongly to describe carbon containing fuels that may undergo combustion when combined with oxygen to produce energy that we can use.  These fuels contain chemical energy which we can convert to energy to heat and even cool our buildings, and it can be converted to kinetic energy to move things.  These fuels are just as free as the wind!  However, converting the energy in fossil fuels to a form that we can use is not free, but it is less expensive than extracting the energy in wind.

Infinity is not a number.  It is a way of describing something that has no limit, no number.  In nature, it is difficult to find infinities, because we ourselves are limited in our perceptive abilities as well as our knowledge.  Very large and very small numbers are all around us, but they are not infinite.

The amount of carbon in the observed universe is enormous, but definitely finite, unless time and space are infinite.  Carbon is the fourth most abundant element by mass after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen.  Burning fuels that contain carbon does not change the carbon into some other element.  It is carbon both before and after it is burned.  Combustion of carbon containing compounds is one small part of the carbon cycle.  We never use up carbon, we change it chemically, and we can change it back.  All we need to do this is energy.  What starts out as a piece of wood can become part of a piece of wood again after it has burned, thanks to photosynthesis.  What starts out as coal, can find its way back to coal again, or to oil or natural gas, or to a leaf, a piece of limestone, or even to a diamond or the pencil you hold in your hand.

Carbon is by far the most associative element in the universe.  There are more different substances made of carbon than all other kinds of substances combined.  Carbon will be around much longer than wind will be around.  Carbon will still be around after our solar system is long gone, and our Milky Way Galaxy for that matter.  That which we call the wind, will not even remain a memory.  As long as there are humans to burn carbon fuels, there will be carbon fuels to burn.  You don’t have to worry about running out of carbon, but I expect we will stop burning large quantities of it as an energy source at some point in the not to distant future.  On the other hand, a wind farm the size of the earth’s surface is not large enough to provide the energy we will need.  Land is also finite, as is our patience for foolish statements.

Words have meaning and so do sentences and paragraphs.  But there is meaning between the lines as well, and it often speaks the greater truth.

Wind energy is not free, nor is the energy from fossil fuels.  Neither is infinite.

About DocStephens

Retired college professor of science and mathematics, academic administrator, and president (emeritus).
This entry was posted in Climate Science, Energy, Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s