What gas turbines can teach us about being happy
For the past two weeks I have been studying engineering as it relates to the ship I’ll be working on for the next couple of years – that is to say, I’ve been studying gas turbine engines. It’s been awhile since I studied engineering or physics, and at first I was hopelessly confused as to how in the world engines generated power. Finally, I realized my confusion wasn’t scientific; it was philosophical. I was seeing everything the wrong way round.
I had it in my head, you see, that generators were used to generate power, that they were the start of the system, from which you pulled the power to do everything else. So I found it very difficult to understand what good it was to have a generator that you had to put power into in order to make work. What good does it do to generate power when you already have to have power to start off?
Eventually, of course, I remembered conservation of energy – that is, I remembered that we can’t make power; we can only take one form of power and make it into a more useful kind. And so we take heat and make it into mechanical energy in a turbine, or make it into electricity with a magnet. But in any case, we don’t have a perfectly efficient system, so while we’re gaining electricity, our system is actually losing energy; we’re tapping into a separate energy source and managing to use part of it.
To be fair, the terminology of ‘generators’ and ‘power production’ was what confused me, and I think this is a common confusion in society today. We need to rediscover that we talk about ‘harnessing’ energy precisely because it is like harnessing a horse; you tame a horse, but you can’t control it. You just take its power and turn it to your own purposes; but you can’t make a horse. You have to find one that nature has already produced. And as with the horsey sort of horsepower, so with the mechanical sort. We can’t make it. We can only tap into it and ride the waves.
Why in the world does this matter? Because it reminds us of just how big the world is. We don’t control nature or energy; we can’t own it. We don’t say whether it stays or goes. We just tap into it for a while, and a little bit of its energy siphoned off is enough to supply our needs. It doesn’t exist for us; it’s roaring across the world, free and unchecked, only diverted for a while for our purposes. We may own the right to use it, or a way of converting it, or the capacity to store a bit of it, but we don’t make it, and we can’t use it up; we can only hitch a ride for a while. We’re all hitchhiking on the back of the universe.
E=mc2 – just think how much energy is latent in a penny or a pebble, if it were ever unleashed. “Unleashed”, because it’s as much like a dog as a horse, and we can hold it in check and set it loose, but we can’t ever fully contain or control it. We haven’t made it; it’s not ours. We’re just passing it on.
The same can be said of land or money; we can hold them, use them for a while, store them, have the right to gain from them and harness them for our own purposes, but we can’t own them; they predate us, and they’ll remain when we’re gone. We didn’t make them; our ancestors didn’t make them. They were here.
Yes, we invented coins and paper money, but those are only symbols. Worth, buying power, economics, are all forces of nature that we try (and usually fail) to manipulate, but don’t understand, and certainly don’t own. That’s why the misers have it backwards: they try to own money by holding onto it, and so they lose the buying power it represents, because they’ll never spend it, and so they never have anything.
Perhaps the best example of this, however, is time. We have absolutely no control over time; we live in it, and it comes and it goes without consulting us. We do things and make changes and deal with problems in time, but we have no control over it whatsoever – indeed, we constantly remark on how it’s getting away from us or we’re losing track of it. And yet I find myself becoming incensed at any unexpected demands on “my time.”
So let’s move beyond entitlement, and forget about our so-called rights to things we didn’t make and can’t control. Trying to dominate nature leaves us exhausted and bored; it makes life into a burden when it should be an adventure. Instead, let’s enjoy living in and tapping into all the great forces and powers that surround us, and ever with a frolic welcome take the thunder and the sunshine. It’s no use and no fun trying to invent a horse, but by all means, let’s go riding.