Monday, November 19, 2007

Gauged your molecules today?

I’ve been reading a fascinating book called “The World Without Us,” in which author Alan Weisman addresses the question: What would happen to the world if all us humans suddenly vanished?

Answering that question requires considerable examination of what the world is like today. In a chapter that makes truck emissions seems like baby’s breath, Weisman explores the changes that about 50 years of widespread, massive and growing production of plastics have made. You can read it online here, click on Chapter 9: Polymers Are Forever. Chapter 10 continues the exploration, in even more depressing detail.

One detail, however, caught my attention: A brief overview of how Charles Goodyear accidentally discovered how to vulcanize rubber. Weisman makes the startling declaration that a rubber tire, essentially, acts like one giant molecule.

Even if, like me, you spent most of chemistry class dreaming about fishing, you probably recall that molecules are supposed to be really tiny things. Not rubber he says. When all the ingredients are mixed together into – let’s call it tire dough – and the dough is poured into the form and heated, all those atoms link up and form one big long chain: one molecule.

Yeah, right. I think the man is stretching the definition of molecule here to cover an entire truck rim. From reading other descriptions of what happens in vulcanization, it sounds like a lot of molecules all lined up in long chains, kinda like the world’s largest conga line.

Whatever. There aren’t any little bacteria that eat rubber, so, no matter how tiny it shreds, it doesn’t biodegrade. In landfills, Weisman say, tires do what we bought them for: they trap air and, over time, tend to float to the surface. So, if we’re all Raptured or virused away, old tires will be rising to the top of landfills for centuries to come, where they will perform their secondary function of providing habitat for breeding mosquitoes.

All of which is a really long way of getting to a point that relates to trucking. To keep your “molecules” from giving out too soon, check their pressure with a gauge, not a bat. And when asked, “Paper or plastic,” go the paper route.