Chemistry Pic of The Week: Light and Oil

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And they sought after pure olive oil to light the lamps therewith, but could not find any, except one bowl that was sealed with the signet ring of the High Priest from the days of Samuel the prophet and they knew that it was pure.

The Scroll of Antiochus

I write this on the seventh night of Chanukkah. My girlfriend is Jewish and like many chemists, I’m a bit of a pyromaniac, so I manage to get excited about the lighting of candles. For those unfamiliar with the celebration, it’s a minor Jewish holiday that enjoys a high profile in North America due to its proximity to Christmas. What’s interesting to me is that this ancient celebration commemorates something we can relate to in the modern era.

The story goes than an ancient king of the Greek Selucid Empire outlawed Judaism and made sacrifices to Zeus in their Second Temple. A Jewish priest and his sons led a revolt against the Greek king and prevailed. After taking the temple back from the Greeks, they could only find one jar of kosher oil with which to light the menorah, a ceremonial lampstand in the temple. Here, we’re talking about oil lamps. The miracle commemorated was that the oil lasted for eight days instead of one, giving time to make more new oil.

That’s right, oil. But we’re not talking about petroleum from the ground or heating oil, which is derived from it. We’re talking about something you’ll likely find in any kitchen: Olive oil. While the ancient Jews used olive oil for ceremonial purposes, drippings from animal fat, and oils derived from other plants have been used by people all over the world for centuries to make light.

While the ancients in the story used olive oil, this rhymes with our current anxieties around fossil fuels. Petroleum literally means “rock oil” and one of the big fears around fossil fuels is that they will eventually run out, leaving us with nothing to light our ever expanding cities and towns. These fears have largely been overshadowed by our concerns about global warming, which are equally valid. Meanwhile, the discovery of new methods of oil extraction such as hydraulic fracturing, and the discovery of exploitable oil shale in the United States has significantly changed our estimate for when we lose access to cheap petroleum. The oil is lasting longer than expected. The question becomes whether we use this extension on cheap fossil energy to develop technologies that take us beyond them, or to grow complacent as we add ever more carbon to the atmosphere.

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