Killer Serials: Breakthrough, Ep. 5

Nat Geo’s new series, Breakthrough, highlights scientists working on the cutting edge of research in biomechanics, aging, the brain, diseases, and, as of last night, energy. Human limitations have been a central theme of every episode, and they are in this week’s episode, “Energy on the Edge.” Tony Jones and I discuss below.

TJ: I really like the subject of this episode, “Energy on the Edge.” I can’t imagine a more important topic than finding clean energy for the future. I think about this every day, as my phone battery wears down. On the one hand, it’s amazing that I can suck energy from a wall and store it in my phone battery for the day. On the other hand, how can we still be so reliant on batteries that are recharged by the burning of coal?

Using the heat that’s trapped inside the earth is cool. So is using the energy of the sun. But using a 139 lasers to cause nuclear fusion is both thrilling and, to be honest, damn frightening. They are actually making a mini-star — or attempting to — in hopes that entity will be self-sustaining and limitless.

But I wonder, what’s wrong with limits? Isn’t limitation endemic to the human experience?

RP: Limitation has been a central theme of every episode this season and one that we’ve returned to in each post. Making a star on earth from a process that literally extends beyond the laws of physics is scary as hell. But, given the enormity of the problems we face, I think pushing those limitations is worth the risk, especially if we consider the cost of not doing so.


I’m intrigued by the differences between the alternative energy options we have. There seems, to me, a difference between exploiting solar, wind or waste powered energies that take “passive” advantage of–as Bateman said a couple of times–the energy already around us and the invasive acts of penetrating (mining) the earth to get at resources that are more difficult to obtain. One seems purer to me than the other.

TJ: True, but what do we know? You and me, I mean. One of the things I’ve thought about in every episode of Breakthrough is how huge the gap is between the scientists making these breakthrough discoveries and me. With the advance of science, the gap between specialists and plebs like us is greater than it’s ever been.

And that, I think, leads to the moral quandary in every episode: are these scientists going too far, and how the hell would we know if they were? It’s funny how quickly the Icelandic researcher brushes off the fears about earthquakes as a result of him pumping cold water into the earth’s crust to hit molten rock and generate steam. It’s not even a concern, he says. And what are you and I to do, other than to take his word for it?

There is, however, one thing that I can understand: beer!

RP: Yes, I was pleased to see the potential for beer to “save the earth,” and the notion of breweries (and other factories) powering their operations with their own waste seems like a logical next step in addressing our energy crises. And, for viewers like us, this whole notions of these scientists and researches “saving the earth” has an interesting soteriological ring to it. In what ways is this type of work helping to usher in the “kingdom of God?”

Finally, there’s something inspiring about what these scientists and engineers are doing as they devote their lives to projects that they’ll most likely never see come to fruition. Are we tending to things that will outlast us? And their willingness to “fail up” is something inspiring as well.

The final episode of Breakthrough airs Sunday, December 13th, at 9:00 p.m.