I was asked the other day about the best educational experience we’ve had during our travels. My mind started reeling through all the incredible places we’ve been – Taroko Gorge in Taiwan where we witnessed the amazing forces of Mother Nature… Bagan, Myanmar with hundreds of ancient stupas dotting the plains… Dr. Cabrera’s Stone Museum in Peru where we learned about unique, mysteriously carved stones… Lalibela, Ethiopia with her rock-hewn churches carved out of a single piece of stone…
How do I choose just one?
But really, if I had to choose one best educational experience I think it would the night we figured out how to solve all the world’s problems. We came to the conclusion that all we really need are pinecones.
That evening we sat around the campfire chatting about carrot soup. The previous day, Davy had been sick; as in – barfing up all the carrots he had eaten throughout the day. During the night all those piles of puke had frozen and we awoke to small piles of frozen carrot soup dotting the ground around our tent.
As we thought back upon the day, John mused, “You kids are pretty lucky. Not many American kids ever get have the chance to do this – sit around a campfire and talk. In fact, you guys have had the chance to do a whole lot more than most kids. I mean… how many kids get to make carrot puke soup?”
“And not only that,” I added, “carrot puke soup coming out your nose is definitely something not every kid gets to experience.”
The conversation deteriorated from there… carrot puke soup (yuck!)… how about beet puke soup? (double yuck!)… I remember when I was a kid they used to serve us beets with school lunch but nobody ate them. We ended up with a whole trash can full of beet soup at the end of the day…
And so, a few hours later when we were snuggled up in our sleeping bags and lights were out and Daryl asked, “So what are we gonna talk about now?” I was ready for something a bit more intellectually stimulating. I piped up (quite sarcastically), “Nuclear physics!”
“What’s nuclear physics?”
So John launched into his three-minute lecture…
“Nuclear physics is all about splitting atoms. Uranium atoms. You see, uranium atoms have 238 protons crammed into their nucleus. What do you know about protons?”
“Yep. And what happens when you put two positives next to each other?”
“Exactly. So here we have 238 itty bitty positives packed into the nucleus of the atom, and it takes a lot of energy to hold them together. Scientists have figured out that if they bombard a uranium atom with an alpha particle it will split, releasing all that energy. But it doesn’t only release the energy. It also releases two more alpha particles.
“So what scientists do to make a nuclear bomb is to take a whole bunch of uranium atoms and pack them together. Then to detonate the bomb they bombard it with an alpha particle. One atom splits, releasing energy. But more importantly, it releases two more alpha particles. Each of those particles goes out and bombards another atom, and they split, releasing energy and two more particles. So now we have how many alpha particles?”
“Right. And now those four particles split four more atoms which release….?”
“Energy and eight more alpha particles!”
“Exactly. And then we get…?”
“Sixteen! Then 32. Then 64.”
“And eventually one million, then two million, and four million…”
“One trillion!! Two trillion… four trillion… eight trillion…”
“You got it! So each of those atoms releases a lot of energy. And it all takes places in a split second. And that’s a nuclear bomb.”
Daryl thought about that for a minute, then asked, “Mommy? How many people does a nuclear bomb kill?”
“Good question sweetie,” I replied. “And one that’s pretty difficult to answer. A lot depends on where you drop the bomb. If you drop it in a city of millions of people, you kill millions. If you drop it in the middle of nowhere, well… not many. But that’s the easy part to calculate. The hard part is what happens afterwards. You see, after a nuclear explosion, we end up with nuclear fallout in the air.”
“Yeah – little tiny radioactive particles that float around, like smoke. And, like smoke, the wind carries them away. Eventually they fall down and some will land on people, making them sick. Others will land in the trees or in the soil. Then when we grow crops in the soil, what happens.”
“The fallout gets in the food?”
“Exactly. So you see, the effects of a nuclear explosion are difficult to measure. Hundreds of miles away, someone could get sick – and you don’t know if they would have gotten sick anyway, or if it is a reaction to the nuclear fallout. We’ve learned a lot about the effects of nuclear fallout from Chernobyl, but there is still a lot to learn.”
“Chernobyl was a nuclear power plant that had a terrible accident many years ago. A lot of people died right away. Thousands of others were exposed to the fallout, but didn’t die right away. Now they are experiencing very strange sicknesses – and we don’t really know if they are all caused by the fallout. Scientists suspect they are, but it is hard to know for sure.”
We all fell asleep to images of mushroom clouds….
Daryl obviously thought about this all night, because over breakfast he asked, “Mommy? Is a nuclear power plant a place that makes electricity or nuclear bombs?”
“It makes electricity. Really the only difference between a power plant and a bomb is that they control the reaction in a power plant, while a bomb is left uncontrolled. But it is exactly the same process for both. And nuclear energy is a very efficient source of electricity.”
“Why don’t we all use nuclear electricity then?”
“A lot of people are concerned about the possibility of an accident, like Chernobyl. Supposedly the plants are safe, but what if…? A huge accident happened then; it could happen again. So that’s why many people are against nuclear power.”
“Not only that,” John added, “there is also a lot of waste. After most of the uranium atoms have split they can’t use that chunk any more, but there is still a lot of radioactivity in it. And we don’t know how to safely dispose of it yet. In Russia, they throw it in the ocean.”
“That sounds like a good option.”
“But then that radioactivity gets in the water, and a fish swims through it and…?”
“It might die. Or it might just get sick. Then fishermen go out fishing and catch the fish and what do they do with it?”
“Yep. And then?”
“The radioactivity gets in them?”
“You’ve got it buddy! So that’s why throwing this garbage in the ocean isn’t a good idea. In America we put it in a big case with lots of layers of cement and heavy metals, then we bury it. We have a lot of it buried in Idaho. They say the radioactive particles can’t get out, but many people think they can.”
“I guess nuclear power isn’t such a great idea after all…”
“But the bigger problem is that we need some source of energy. Right now we use oil for our cars, but oil takes billions of years to form and we are using it way faster than the earth can make it. It will all run out soon, and then what will we do?”
“That’s one thing we can do. But all that food we eat – farmers need tractors to farm it all. And trucks to transport it. And those things need oil.”
“Scientists are working on other forms of energy. The sun is a great source – you’ve seen all those solar panels on roadside signs, right? Scientists are trying to make them more efficient so we can rely more on solar power. And wind – that’s a good source of power too. But it takes lots of land to have enough windmills to get enough electricity. Scientists are really trying to find other sources. By the time you grow up, you will be using something besides oil. I guarantee it.”
“I know!!” Daryl shouted excitedly. “Look at all that energy in the fire! All those yellow flames – pure energy. And it is all coming from pinecones!”
“Yeah,” Davy added, “and instead of nuclear bombs, people could just throw pine cones at each other when they want to fight.”
“They could reuse the pinecones over and over as bombs and when the pinecones are all trashed out, they could burn them and get the energy. And they’ll never run out of pinecones – they’re everywhere!”
So there it is – we’ve solved the world’s problems and pinecones really are all we need.