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.

Saving the Country

In Joel Achenbach’s book, A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher, we are presented with a reality that is very concerning about the designed, engineered, and increasingly complex world that we live in. Our systems today are so well connected and include so many different moving parts that it can be nearly impossible for any single individual to fully understand how everything functions together.  When one, or multiple, parts of a system fail it can have catastrophic and unpredictable results that challenge even those who built the system. Achenbach however, does not look at our world with fear because it is not just our systems that are increasingly interconnected, but also our smart people. Toward the beginning of his book he writes, “You never know when someone’s fantastically esoteric expertise may be called upon to help save the country.”


As our problems have become more complex we have developed higher education and research opportunities for individuals  to specialize in increasingly narrow fields. A common refrain heard on college campuses is that as one advances through multiple degrees they know more and more about less and less. Their focus shifts from a broad knowledge base to an increasingly narrow, specific, and complete understanding of a single subject. What this means is that we have many experts in single areas who understand the problems and science related to their field in truly profound ways.


When disasters arise and systems fail, which Achenbach believes may happen with increasing frequency in the future, we don’t simply need to rely on the on the ground and local experts, designers, and engineers who built the system that is failing.  Those who may be able to help save our system could be spread across the world and their fields may seem to distinct and far apart to be useful, but Achenbach believes that everyone can combine their individual expertise in novel ways to solve the most complex problems that arise.  As our research grows so do our social networks and our opportunities to combine research in new ways. We may not think that any single piece of research is too critical for our planet, but each scientific view that can be combined increases our perspective of a problem and increase the creativity which can be brought toward our solution.  In his book Achenbach shows the way that scientists from different fields were able to pool their knowledge and perspective to find a solution to a problem that threatened the entire Gulf of Mexico.

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.

Life in the Ocean

James Nestor wrote the book, Deep: Free Diving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves, after traveling to the Mediterranean to watch a free diving competition.  Prior to the competition he was a certified scuba diver, but it was not until he learned about how the human body reacts to the depths of the ocean without scuba gear that Nestor really began to understand the importance of the ocean.  He did not just study free diving and human physiology in the water, but he worked to understand all aspects of life in the ocean. Nestor writes, “The ocean occupies 71 percent of the Earth’s surface and is home to about 50 percent of its known creatures — the largest inhabited area found anywhere in the universe so far.”


I love learning about how large, deep, and diversified our oceans are.  I live in Reno, NV, in one of the only places on Earth that does not have a river that eventually makes its way to the ocean.  Our high desert climate is about as far from the ocean as one can be, which perhaps is why I am so fascinated with the life in water.  Learning about the varied life in the ocean fascinates me because we have only studied the ocean to a very limited extent, and in many ways the deep ocean can be compared to outer space in terms of how difficult it is to reach and the extent to which it has been explored and understood.


In Nestor’s quote he writes that the ocean is home to about 50 percent of Earth’s species, and what I find interesting is that many marine biologists believe that we do not know all of the creatures and life forms living in the ocean.  We have truly only explored a small percent of the ocean, and there are many more living organisms to be discovered in the vast depths of the worlds oceans.


For me, thinking about the ocean in this way forces me to think about human relationships with the ocean.  Many of our relationships are not positive, through history we have not done a good job thinking about ocean health.  It is easy for our trash to accumulate in watersheds that drain into the oceans, and oil shipping and exploration have had many negative consequences for ocean life.  In addition, we have inhabited huge areas, typically bays and estuaries, along our coastlines and reduced the habitat for many marine species.  While human societies should not be constantly limited in order to save animal species, thinking about how we can live in a state of harmony with oceans and marine life is not just a nice thing to do, it is a necessary responsibility of all humans.


James Nestor talks about the incredible abilities of marine animals in his book Deep, and he compares humans, our evolutionary past, and our physical limits to those of marine mammals and other ocean life.  When speaking about diving to incredible depths and perceiving the world he refers to sharks, “Sharks, which can dive below six hundred and fifty feet, and much deeper, rely on senses beyond the ones we know.  Among them is magneto reception, an attunement to the magnetic impulses of the Earth’s molten core.  Research suggests that humans have this ability and likely used it to navigate across the oceans and trackless deserts for thousands of years.”  Nestor explains that at 600 feet below the surface the pressure exerted by the ocean is about twenty times grater than the atmospheric pressure at the surface.  This is the absolute limit of the human body, but other animals, whales and sharks for example, are able to survive these depths.


What this section speaks to me about is the incredible diversity in life on our planet. With conservation it is important that we do not force society into blocking projects and developments that may be crucial for societal advances on the basis of preserving natural harmony, but at the same time, seeing the incredible adaptations among all forms of life is inspiring and could unlock new potentials for humanity.  An adaption that leads sharks to be able to navigate by magnetic senses may not directly correlate to human advancement, but understanding that living organisms can adapt these senses may provide a spark of motivation for someone in the future. The possible breakthroughs in science, medicine, and technology are a strong base for expanding education and research of marine life, and that life must be protected through conservation in order for our continued research.  Unfortunately fun discoveries and potential discoveries that could help humanity cannot be considered always more important than a growing and improving society.  Individuals living along the coast rely on shipping, and forcing ports to close by changing shipping lanes so that we can better preserve and save a species of shark to study magnetorecption might not always be the best way to think of conservation.


Aside from conservation, what I am constantly reminded of when I read passages that deal with animal senses that seem alien when compared to human abilities, is that we truly do not know everything of our world.  I have come to understand that it is ok to not know everything about the world. It is difficult, but necessary for us to accept that we can not be 100 percent aware of everything around us or everything that influences us.  It is tempting after years of academic work to adopt the idea that one knows everything, can sense everything, and understands their perceptions of the world, but it is a fallacy.  We cannot perceive the world based on our perception of magnetic fields, and keeping that in mind helps us remember that we cannot sense and be aware of all the forces acting on our lives.  I have become comfortable with the idea that there are things that are hidden from me due to my lack of physical senses and mental perspectives.  That comfort helped me to understand that no matter how much I study something or think I know something, there are always different views and ideas that I cannot see which may hide information from me.  Knowing this allows me to listen to others and try to gain more perspectives.  I may not gain a new sense like magnetoreception, but knowing that it exists reminds me to be open.