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Science, History And Finding New Stuff To Burn

A gas storage facility in London. In the 19th century these tanks were called gasometers. Adam Frank hide caption

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Adam Frank

A gas storage facility in London. In the 19th century these tanks were called gasometers.

Adam Frank

Everything has to begin somewhere and the world we inhabit - the one we take for granted, the one currently up for grabs - began here.

This week I am in London working at Imperial College on plasma astrophysics experiments. Between discussions of hypersonic magnetic jets and parsec-wide colliding flows, I'll be out walking. There are many worthy things to see in this city. But as the capitol that birthed the Industrial Revolution, it's the ghosts of promises and the perils of unintended consequences that I am looking for.

Just outside the Chelsea apartment I'm renting stands one of these ghosts. It's a circle of spires five stories tall. Each mast is connected by a ring of ironwork and decorated with ornamentation that speaks of age when industry was still something to be adorned. You might call it a gas tank but back in the 19th century, it was called a gasometer. That's the name people gave these things as they first built the chemical technologies that would power a new age.

In the 1700s, chemists like Joseph Black, Henry Cavendish and Alessandro Volta began identifying the existence of distinct gases like carbon dioxide, hydrogen and methane (before this time there was only the Aristotelian element "air"). By the end of that century, engineers like William Murdoch recognized some of these gases could be extruded from heated coal. The gas could be stored and then burned at will. Murdoch used this new "coal gas" to light his own home and in that illumination he and others saw a glimmer of the future.

By 1804, German entrepreneur Frederick Winsor began giving public demonstrations of gas lightening in London. The idea caught on quickly. Soon 40,000 gaslights were strung across 200 miles of London's streets. The darkness of night in the city was banished to memory.

An infrastructure of retorts, pipes and storage facilities like the gasometer across from my apartment were quickly constructed in London. Other cities across Europe and America built their own networks to turn night into day. With the introduction of the new technology, human culture was reinvented. Everything changed as habits of work, of commerce and even sleep itself were transformed under gaslight.

We are the inheritors of that transformation. Next time you find yourself tooling around at midnight in a house ablaze with light remember your behavior is, essentially, something new. Next time you find yourself driving through city streets bright with life long after sun has set, remember that this way is a new way. The gasometer outside my window stands as stark testimony to a moment when these kinds of behaviors, this form of human culture, first became possible.

Now, a mere 200 years later, we find ourselves living with the unintended consequences of that revolution. The history of civilization has always been tied to what people could burn, be it dung or wood. The widespread use of coal, then coal gas, then petroleum and then natural gas has allowed us to work wonders - miracles even. It allowed us to remake not just our cities but all aspects of human life. Who would want to go back? But back then, who would have imagined we could alter the chemistry of the planet's atmosphere and oceans by burning our new fuels? Who would have imagined that we'd ever have such reach?

As I wander through this thriving city that is so at home with its past and future, I wonder: What other behaviors we will have to learn if we want to keep our lights on? What will we burn in the face of what we have learned about unbreakable links between actions and consequences? It's a question that haunts us all now from Tokyo to Beijing, New York to New Delhi. It's a question whose roots lie right here in London, right outside my window.