Archimedes, Einstein, and Home Energy: Searching for the Eureka Moment

These thoughts come from somewhere out in left field WRT home performance--from the perspective of a humanist intellectual who happens to have a fascination with applied building science. The subject is not solving a problem it is a philosophical consideration of The Problem. Some readers may find accordingly that the remarks below are interesting--others not so much.

Humanist intellectuals in general are people who are interested in a wide spectrum of subjects and who often study them out of curiosity rather than to seek financial gain. There's not much here that will help anyone make more money or run a more prosperous business. People like me have two choices: marry for money or live quite modestly. I fall into the latter category.

It's my nature to take a less-than-optimistic perspective on energy, the climate, the ecosphere, American policy domestic and foreign, most other countries' policies ditto, the chances for women's rights in Afghanistan, human nature, pit bulls trained for blood lust, the likelihood that the Yellowstone supervolcano will erupt sooner rather than later, and so on.

That being the case, I think that the admirable, hopeful vision of thinkers in our industry like Ed Mazria (The 2030 Challenge) and Linda Wigington ( might be tempered--just for the sake of discussion--by the same kind of thinking that we bring to the task of conducting worst-case combustion safety testing: figuring out how bad it can really get, and figuring out how not to get there.

Just as an alcoholic doesn't leave the last two inches in the bottom of a whiskey bottle before falling into bed, the world is not going to make substantial changes in the ways fossil fuel is used until there is none left or until truly viable and affordable alternatives are available on a massive, global scale.

I came across the following:

To the Editor [of the New York Times]:
“There Will Be Fuel”
(Energy special section, Nov. 17) doesn’t mention an important point.
Today’s technologies enable us to extract fossil fuels once considered
too risky and too expensive. Just look to the examples you highlight —
deepwater drilling in our oceans, strip mining oil from Canada’s boreal
forest, and natural gas fracking.
These fuels come with significant environmental costs, whether in
contaminated seafood we eat from the Gulf, air we breathe around tar
sands refineries, or chemicals we drink from aquifers too close to the
gas extraction.
The question should not be whether there will be fuel, but whether we
can afford the tradeoffs in gaining access to these fuels. Instead, we
can put American ingenuity to work to develop solutions like
next-generation biofuels and renewable sources right here at home. Then
we can leave the “bottom of the barrel” fossil fuels just where they
belong — in the ground.

Liz Barratt-Brown
Senior Attorney
Natural Resources Defense Council
Washington, Nov. 18, 2010

Ms Barratt-Brown is unrealistically optimistic about biofuels and renewable sources to be named later. She appears not to consider that "here at home" is not just a country or a continent; it's the global system. If you're reading this, you already know that the house is a system consisting of the enclosure, the mechanicals, and the occupants. It should come as no surprise, then, that the earth is a system as well, and that the wild card in the triangular interaction is the occupants . . . just as it is in the house.

Improving existing buildings with deep energy retrofits, doing building performance improvements in one million homes or in five million, learning to use common sense and to make sacrifices in comfort
and lifestyle unknown to all but the poorest Americans since World War
II . . . although these strategies are potentially attainable, and are certainly admirable and necessary, they are simply not sufficient. One hears much talk about the Seventh Generation, but I have
serious doubts that the ecosphere for our descendants at that time will
be substantially more habitable because of green building or even
because of any of the programs or behaviors presently on the table. I think it's going to be a mess. Something like a house with sixty-four cats and no litter box.

Saving energy in American homes isn't going to beat the ticking clock. Nor will it be enough if we throw in all the Canadian, German, British, Swiss, Scandinavian, and other rich homes in countries where the occupants enjoy a pampered, western-style standard of living. There are simply too many people in the world using energy--some for cooking fires, some for flat-screen TVs--and changing the ecosphere as a consequences of doing so. Solar, geothermal, hydro, wind . . . all are necessary and helpful, but even all together they are nowhere near sufficient either.

If the future for everybody on Earth depended upon the outcome of a football game, and if I were the coach, I'd call for the Hail Mary pass. Our best (maybe only) hope is a paradigm shift, a radical and heretofore unknown or even unimagined way to produce and use energy. Consider this research at MIT into a thermal-chemical approach (, a news story called to our attention in Dan Holohan's excellent newsletter ( The particular avenue of inquiry reported from MIT may not necessarily lead to the energy answer, but the fact that innovative thinking is out there is our best hope. Maybe science can tap the heat energy from radioactivity at great depth in the earth, or maybe--who knows--do something with antimatter or with an interface with a dimension separate from spacetime as we understand it. And no, I am not smoking dope.

This isn't mysticism or a second coming or the Mayan calendar; it's just accepting that there's stuff we don't know (yet). Like negotiators in a hostage crisis, humans need to buy time for technology and science to make a leap that delivers the energy that we must have without side effects that make the planet uninhabitable. Our work is, if anything, even more important as a delaying tactic than as an actual solution for the simple reason that nobody really knows what the solution is yet but we do know that scientists and engineers are looking for it.

In our world of home energy and applied building science, that means working hard to conserve in every way we can. Stretching out the available resources and fouling the environment less is not a satisfactory end in itself because it postpones but does not forestall an eventual tipping point toward irreparable damage or worse. On the other hand, every BTU and every watt saved buys a fraction of a nanosecond for science and technology to have a Eureka moment.

Vitruvius, a Roman architect and author of the first century BC, is a favorite of Dr. Joe Lstiburek, who often points out in his presentations that principles of good building were known and written down long, long ago
by Vitruvius, but are not always applied even now. Vitruvius also wrote that the ancient Greek mathematician, physicist, and engineer, Archimedes (287-212 BC), discovered a fundamental principle of buoyancy in his bath and that he leapt up exclaiming "Eureka!" (meaning "I found it!"). Like most stories that are so much fun, it's unlikely to be true, but Archimedes did in fact grasp a very valuable scientific concept. In the end, understanding nature despite her tricks and subtleties is very, very important. The scene described (invented?) by Vitruvius was a Eureka moment.

Einstein had two Eureka moments. First was his "wonderful year" (annus mirabilis) of 1905, when he wrote four revolutionary papers on physics, including one on special relativity. Even that spurt of brilliance was only a ramp-up to his most revolutionary theory of general relativity published in 1916. You've heard of E=mc², of course, but that's just part of his incredible concept. Einstein's two Eureka moments were the chart-toppers. He spent the rest of his life struggling toward another. They don't come often. We need one soon.

If a comprehensive technological strategy emerges, it still won't solve all of the life-and-death problems for our species and a lot of others, but it will be a start. Everyone on the planet will still face shortages of fresh water and of resources for producing food both on land and in the sea, just to mention two.

But nobody said it was going to be easy.

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Comment by Ira Eisenstein on February 12, 2011 at 2:51pm

Well this is certainly a "bum you out" thread.

Americans (not to be nationalistic) and many other innovative nations are very good at coming up with really good ideas to solve hitherto unsolvable (or solvable at great pain and expense) problems.


I don't know if the "solution" to what everyone seems to be in dread of will come as a Eureka moment, or as the "N'th" step in a development process that finally yields a usable product that solves the problem.


Most innovative products or designs come about as a result of a development process:

When solar electric panels were initially developed, they were costly, impractical, and almost nobody had them.   The pace of development has picked up to the point where they are beginning to become mainstream, and all you need is a Mid-East oil crisis (I can't imagine what might spark that.... Can you???), and you will see electric utility rates skyrocket,   We have "the good life", and we're not about to give it up just because of a political crisis... If we can't generate electricity to "power our lives" with oil, we'll put alternative energy solutions on the fast track.  Then EVERYONE will want solar electric, AND wind, AND geothermal, AND whatever else is out there.  Once you have it, you're not turning back.


The same is true with our cars... Some post'ers here want us on bicycles... That's fine for some, but those of us who don't live in cities can't do that.   We have become used to cars that are ever bigger, faster, and more comfortable.   Some post'ers feel that we will just have to do without these and we should all drive Smart Cars or Prius'es.   I don't buy that.  

I drive a Prius, but it is because I WANT TO, not because I have been told by the energy police that I can't have anything bigger or better.  

Nearly all manufacturers have hybrids, electrics are coming, and the Testarossa PROVES that you CAN HAVE IT BOTH WAYS AT ONCE..... Performan

Comment by David Eggleton on December 16, 2010 at 4:19pm

You wrote:  "If a comprehensive technological strategy emerges, it still won't solve all of the life-and-death problems for our species and a lot of others, but it will be a start. Everyone on the planet will still face shortages of fresh water and of resources for producing food both on land and in the sea, just to mention two."


Then let's not settle for a start.  Let's hold out for a superior paradigm, especially of the human being.  Then many more than some scientists and some engineers could participate in the search.  The worth and potential of so many people are overlooked or ignored.


I'd be much happier if you had written "Our best (maybe only) hope is a paradigm shift, a radical and heretofore unknown or even unimagined way to consider energies."  With all the processing power out there, it could be done in less time, at lower cost.

Comment by Allison A. Bailes III on December 12, 2010 at 8:53am

Great post, Ed! What we're doing is necessarily only a small part of what needs to happen for the human race to avoid catastrophic collapse. You defined the root of the problem with your statement:

There are simply too many people in the world using energy.

But then you seem to have backed away from it by suggesting that the solution is a Hail Mary pass:

a radical and heretofore unknown or even unimagined way to produce and use energy.

No, if growth is the problem - and it is - then the only real solution is finding a way to stop it. If we don't, Nature certainly will, and it won't be pretty. What good will new energy sources and consumption be when the human population grows to the density of one person per square meter?! At current growth rates, that's set to happen in less than a thousand years.

I wrote about this a while back in my blog, which you can read here:

The End of Growth - Mathematics & Peak Oil

It's really just based on simple arithmetic.

Comment by Mark Richardson on December 2, 2010 at 12:18pm
"Stretching out the available resources and fouling the environment less is not a satisfactory end in itself because it postpones but does not forestall an eventual tipping point toward irreparable damage"

Ed, I think of all the salient points you make, this one hits home the most for me. Postponement happens to be where we are now – an important if not critical step in the effort to change behavior through good example and thoughtful discussion. We absolutely need the paradigm shift you reference to buoy our survival until that "eureka" moment for new energy technology.

I believe that like most great discoveries, new energy will be a synthesis of hard work, brilliant minds, and happy accidents.
Comment by John Snell on November 29, 2010 at 8:30am
Thanks, Ed. Yes what we are doing is insufficient even if essential to get us in the right direction and to pacify the mind in the meanwhile. I think the natural systems of which we are just one small, even if hugely significant, part are the model. There is only so much energy and other resources available. While driving smaller cars seems to head us in the right direction, isn't it also clear that NOT driving at all is in our future and that that might even have benefits beyond reduced energy use (like health)?

Clearly the planet can deal with the number humans in existence today but the results won't be pretty from the human perspective. Natural attrition and access to family planning can quickly make a significant dent in this part of the root cause but other issues, namely our natural tendencies to be "little piggies" are more challenging. Who in their right mind would trade the North Slope for a five minute drive to the grocery store to buy a TV dinner? We are not in our right minds! Walking to the grocery store (or, better, your garden) has the added benefit of giving us time to think. Turning off the TV and just having dinner gives us that and helps us connect the dots.

It is not going to be easy but the planet doesn't care. It will carry on without us, even if not the amazing jewel it has been. I'm droning on, sorry, thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Comment by Jamie Kaye on November 28, 2010 at 12:28pm
Good piece Ed.
It is bigger than us, and I like you have faith that it will last!
Hopefully we all can add as many nanoseconds as needed, but if it was written already, I am sure we will!


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