Friday, January 05, 2007

I must go down to the seas methane the smelly lake in the sky
All I ask is a small ship
and a star to steer her by
And the beans' kick and the wind's song
and the belly's shaking,
And an odd mist out of my space
and a grey jet breaking.

I must go down to the seas methane,
for the call of the flowing stink
Is a wild call and a clear call
that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day
with Titan's clouds flying,
And the bung spray and the blown fume,
and the ship-jets crying.

I must go down to the seas methane
to the vagrant Titan life,
To the fuels gay and siren's way
where the wind's like a whiffy wife;
And all I ask is for some beano
from a gagging fellow rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream
when the long rumble's done."

-- "Sea Flatus", by John Methansfield (original poem here)

Sometimes science news writers sure mangle the point of a discovery.
Take this piece on the discovery of lakes of methane on Titan.    Methane is CH4, a simple hydrocarbon and a stinky gas produced by the decomposition of organic compounds-- not to be confused with crystal meth.  The "point?" The methane lakes of Titan (catchy title) proves that Titan is earth-like. Yeah, I do the backstroke in my favorite methane lake every morning.

"I love the smell of methane in the morning." -- Full Metal Spacesuit

The reporter couldn't simply explain that it proves our models about the chemistry of methane on Titan, and may support some new ideas of methane production on Earth as well. This article explains it a little more.

But this misses the point: why we SHOULD care. Ever heard of giving a little background, guys, for those of us who don't subscribe to Methane Quarterly to find the latest centerfolds of sexy methane sources?

A boy's awareness of methane normally proceeds like this: one, methane in a fart is what will turn a flame blue. Two, cows burp and fart methane too. Very hilarious. Three... um. It's a long way to Titan methane from this rudimentary foundation.
The OFFICAL scientific interest in methane, chemical formula CH4, is because it has a certain odium on Earth as a greenhouse gas. Methane, aka "natural gas" also makes a handy fuel for cooking, heating. It is the simplest hydrocarbon (CH4)-- just one carbon atom with 4 hydrogen atoms around it. As a result, it is often released by any kind of chemical process breaking down larger hydrocarbons without oxygen involved.

Methane is not as stable as water, though; methane quickly gets converted to other molecules. Yet if you put carbon dioxide and hydrogen together, they will react to produce methane and water.  
Earthly life, being wet and carbon-based, thus has endless methane-producing reactions. Still. Titan and methane? There are no Congressmen on Titan. Nor are there rice paddies, burping 'n' tooting cows, or human pollution to form methane.
So, physical scientists have looked at Titan and other methane hotspots in the solar system and came to this staggering conclusion--"By crikey, the Earth must pass gas without the aid of life somehow!"

Suddenly, geologists are hot to know if natural gas might be trapped in the earth's crust. That could mean a LOT more fuel to burn when petroleum has had its heyday, and maybe our gas heating bills will finally go down. This article discusses methane in the earth's mantle.

It is still the general belief that methane comes mostly from life on Earth. Rice plants have been caught exuding methane (but they didn't inhale) when young and alive. Decomposing plants produce that famous swamp gas stink, too. Bacteria make methane, too. And there always is the good old cow, a regular bacterial factory.
One scientist is exploiting the bovine methane angle by "Gobar" (cowdung) gas research in Northern India. Hmm, wonder if you get to share the livestock when you buy the stock shares?
Ah, enough gassing for now.

--Wilbrod the Gnome--