Al Stahler: Fire, energy, smoke – Food, energy, virus |

Al Stahler: Fire, energy, smoke – Food, energy, virus

It takes energy to pick up a rock. With gravity pulling downward, the rock would “rather” be back on the ground. But the energy spent in lifting the rock is not lost. Drop the rock, and you get the energy back – exactly as much energy as it took to pick it up … enough energy to break something when the rock hits the ground.

Everything around us is made of atoms … atoms glued together to make molecules. You, I, everything else that lives, are all built of large, complex molecules, composed of lots of atoms: proteins, fats, nucleic acids.

The atoms in these large, complex molecules came from much smaller molecules. Harnessing the energy of sunlight, green plants pulled oxygen atoms off small molecules of water; combined the two remaining atoms with small molecules of carbon dioxide to make larger molecules of sugar; and then made molecules larger yet, with which they built their green bodies. We, in turn, recycle those larger molecules into our own bodies.

Smoke, as seen from space. A plume from the Caldor Fire blows northwest.
Photo courtesy NASA Suomi spacecraft

Just as the rock we lifted would “rather” be on the ground, the atoms in our large protein and fat molecules would “rather” be glued to oxygen again, in molecules of water, would “rather” be glued together in molecules of carbon dioxide.

And, just as dropping the rock gives back the energy it took to lift it, allowing the atoms in large molecules to re-join with oxygen … to become carbon dioxide and water again … gives back the energy it took to build those large molecules … all the way back to the energy plants harvested from sunlight.

The energy return can be impressive … mesmerizing … frightening: Fire.

Flames have an anatomy, but a wildfire’s out-of-control flames dance around too much to see what’s going on. Much easier to study is the steadier flame of a candle.

Flames from the River Fire burned through the night earlier this month. Flames have an anatomy, but a wildfire’s out-of-control flames dance around too much to see what’s going on.
Elias Funez/

There’s a lot going on in a candle flame – we’ll look at just a couple of things.

Light a candle and, when it’s burning smoothly, put some water into the bowl of a spoon. Hold the spoon – for just a moment – a few inches above the flame. Tiny water droplets condense on the bottom of the spoon, just as water condenses on a mirror when we shower. (You have to work quickly, lest the spoon get too warm; if it does, let it cool, put in some more water, and try again).

Dry the spoon, and hold it – for just a moment – in the bright, upper part of the flame. The spoon disturbs the flame; smoke may rise (as smoke rises from wildfire flames disturbed by wind). On the bottom of the spoon, there’s soot.

In the flame, soot, combining with oxygen from the air, becomes carbon dioxide and water (which we saw on the spoon). The reaction releases enough energy to heat the soot to over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit – hot enough to glow, and create candlelight.

Smoke, coming off the disturbed flames of the wildfires to our north and south, is what we’ve been breathing for so long now.

When the atoms in large molecules re-combine fast with oxygen, to make carbon dioxide and water, it’s called fire; the large molecules are fuel.

When the atoms in large molecules re-combine with oxygen , to make carbon dioxide and water … but slowly … inside our bodies … it’s called metabolism; the large molecules are food. Metabolism provides the energy that keeps us alive.

Only so much energy can come from a fire; only so much energy can come from metabolism.

Talking with friends and neighbors who have dealt with a serious case of COVID … lack of energy stands out.

Which makes sense. A virus is a highjacker, forcing the body to make more viruses … to build large molecules … which demands energy.

The immune system, meanwhile, is mounting its defense … it, too, is telling the body to build large molecules … it, too, demands energy.

We all have a habit of ignoring our bodies, pushing ourselves, despite that feeling of low energy. In this case, at least, it would seem prudent, to listen to the body … to conserve one’s energy … leave it for the immune response.

Vaccines do not cure disease, nor do they kill germs. A vaccine can only buy time … a few days, maybe a week, maybe two.

When a germ infects the body, it starts a race – a race between the bug, building its population … and our immune system, building its defenses. The bug usually has a head-start.

A vaccine gives the body a heads-up, a warning, putting the immune system on an equal footing in the race.

Underlying the use of vaccines is the presumption that one’s immune system is in good shape. If it’s not, it cannot respond strongly to the vaccine … the heads-up won’t do much good. I’ve pointed out, in this column, that a healthy immune system needs good food … exercise … and sleep. Let me add one more thing that research is finding contributes to a strong immune response: A positive attitude.

Stress, these days, seems inevitable … but we don’t have to let it get us down.

Al Stahler enjoys sharing science and nature with friends and neighbors in The Union and on KVMR-FM. He teaches classes for both kids and grown-ups, and can be reached at

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