What is in Crude Oil?

When we think of crude oil we probably don’t think of much unless we are somehow connected to a science or oil career.  Our image of pumping oil from the ground or from the ocean floor probably involves some sort of pipe with black sludge flowing out of it.  What Joel Achenbach explains in his book A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea is that the oil, and the process of pumping that oil, is far more complex than what we imagine.  To help us understand what happened during the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, he spends time detailing what exactly comes out of the ground when pumping oil, and what must be sent back into the ground to replace what comes up.  We don’t just pull up oil as we drill, but we get gas, water, sand, and more, and the men and women working on the oil rigs must account for everything that comes through the pipe.

 

When it comes to the crude oil itself, Achenbach writes about what actually composes the sludge. “There is no single hydrocarbon molecule named “oil.” There is, however, benzene, toluene, m-Xylene, n-heptylbenzene, indene, indan, naphthalene, tetralin, biphenyl, acenaphthylene, flourene, pyrene, chrysene, benzopyrene, pentacene – these just being a partial list of typical aromatic hydrocarbons found in crude oil. There are also hydrocarbon cases: predominantly methane, but also ethane, propane, butane, pentane, hexane, and heptane, and there are other gases mixed in with the hydrocarbons—gases that have more than just hydrogen sulfide, and helium. One also finds traces of phosphorus, iron, nickel, and vanadium.”

 

He details the contents of the crude oil to show that what we pump from the ground is incredibly varied, and hard to predict because of the wide array of compounds often contained.  When BP and scientists around the world raced to close the well in the Gulf of Mexico gushing oil into the ocean, they had to consider the nature of the oil.  Understanding what is in the substance helps us know how it will react to specific situations and how it will behave under different conditions. It also helped us to better understand what the oil would do when it diffused into the ocean.

 

I like the quote above about the oil because it serves to show how large of a disconnect exists in our world between insiders and outsiders when it comes to things like science, technology, and industry.  Achenbach’s book is full of examples of the complex process and nature of drilling for oil that the general population is not aware of.  I spend a lot of time consuming science podcast and blogs, but even then I have only a superficial understanding of any scientific field. Our experts know increasingly more about how our world operates, but that knowledge is increasingly hidden from the general public who is too busy, too stressed, and too preoccupied to learn and engage in scientific studies that use complex language and focus on seemingly obscure subjects. What we must demand as a population is better science communication to help us understand how our engineered world operates.  We must find time to focus on understanding at least part of the complex world around us, if for no reason other than to appreciate the work of science. It may never help me to know that there are so many varieties of contents in crude oil, but it may help me better understand the science that goes into refining oil, and it may help me accept the prices that I pay when I  fuel up my car.
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Mental Complexity

“The term mental complexity refers to our ability to perceive the subtle nuances that separate similar ideas, issues, and events in the world around us—the gray areas that replace the strictly black-and-white understandings of the world that most of us have when we’er young.” Fred Kiel uses this quote to introduce us to the ways in which he believes great leaders think about the world.  For Kiel, a strong leader needs to have well developed moral ideas, an evolving and profound sense of self-awareness, and an ability to think of others as much as they think of themselves.  By introducing the idea of mental complexity Kiel is able to show how thorough our leaders’ though processes should be. They cannot adhere to simplistic guidelines or principles and they cannot apply blanket statements to all facets of life when so much of what happens in our life takes on a new meaning when you shift your perspective.

 

Kiel quotes psychologist Robert Kegan  and his idea of the self-transforming mind to continue his thoughts on mental complexity, “According to Kegan, the self-transforming mind is continually aware of not knowing everything—of understanding that every worldview is incomplete and that we can never know everything there is to know about anything.” This quote fits with Kiel’s idea of living life in more of a gray are as opposed to living in a dichotomy.  Life in this way can be frustrating and sometimes clouded, but learning to better think through the events and ideas surrounding us will allow us to live more dynamically and open to changes.  Rather than shutting anyone or any event out of our lives we can adjust to situations and people as situations change. Understanding that we all approach the world from our own perspectives and being able to see that we will not all thrive by approaching life from the same angle will give us a better grasp on how to create real progress in not just our own lives, but in the lives of those around us as well. Kiel argues that this is a necessary quality for a strong business leader because so often our leaders are faced with decisions that have many implications and conflicting interests for various groups of people such as shareholders, employees, local communities, and global customers. By thinking dynamically a leader with a strong moral backbone can help navigate these decisions in a way that will add value to the lives of more people than just those in the boardroom.

 

In the United States I think we do a particularly poor job of approaching the world with the type of mindset that Kiel describes.  In our politics we have seen our two major parties diverge from moderate and centrist ideas to become more extreme and more polarized, and I think a big part of this shift has to do with a lack of developing mental complexity in our world views’.  For some reason our country highly values strong and unwavering view points on everything from abortion, taxes, sports teams, and music. We have begun using our preferences for seemingly minor parts of our lives as cornerstone concepts of our identities, and this has pushed us to a place where we understand the world through dichotomies. Rather than living in the black and white and doing our best to think through and understand various points of view, we have tied ourselves to specific though processes on which we lean on to create our identity.  This is dangerous because it limits our ability to see nuances in thought processes, and it creates winners and losers in areas that cannot simply reduced to good or bad. When a leader, political or in business, ties themselves to a set identity and refuses to think of the world through multiple perspectives, they risk alienating others and preventing growth by failing to truly understand the choices available to them.

Material Science

In his book Stuff Matters Mark Miodownik explores the world of every day materials that shape our lives and understandings of the world.  He looks at steel, concrete, foam, and more to show us how complex our seemingly simple world is.  He continually reveals the misconceptions people have about the materials in our daily world by telling the backstory of materials and presenting them in an almost lifelike manner.  Miodownik writes, “materials are not static things: they respond to their environment, and especially to temperature.”

 

I think Miodownik’s quote is a great one for people outside of the general science or material science community because it begins to reveal and explain the complex nature of the built world.  We often are appalled when systems fail (think of a train wreck, the BP oil spill, or crumbling concrete infrastructure) but few of us understand just how those systems operate and what forces limit or strain our engineering.  It is easy to criticize a company or government when materials are not holding up to our demands, but simple criticism ignores the fact that our products face factors and variables that are sometimes impossible to know or predict.  Through science and testing we can develop systems that are more secure and sound, but we will never be able to account for 100% of the anomalies that any given bridge, airplane, or coffee table will face.

 

I recently read Joel Achenbach’s recount of the BP Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea, and throughout his book he highlights the fact that our engineered planet has become so complex that it is nearly impossible for the average citizen (or even the President of the United States) to truly understand how everything is organized. What I have taken away from these two books is that we need to be more patient with the world around us. We can hold engineers, car companies, and manufacturers to very high standards, but we should also expect and be prepared for systems to fail.  Oftentimes a failure in our built world is not the result of a single overlooked, poorly built, or sloppily assembled unit, but rather the result of anomalous strains and individually inconsequential shortfalls.  Developing a better understanding of the built world around us will help us react and respond better to our materials and their potential failures.  The more we know about science and the current state of science the more likely we are to support development, and when things go wrong, the less likely we are to point fingers as opposed to aid the development of novel solutions.