The Technium

Trickles of Energy

“When a plane full of tourists flies from LA to Cairo so they can visit the Great Pyramid, that one flight uses as much energy as it took to build the Great Pyramid.”


I don’t know if this is true, but this calculation was made by John Greer, as relayed by John Baez.

Greer was making a point about peak oil. But if his calculation is correct what this suggests to me is that the ultimate energy power is information. The reason we can’t use the giga-calories of a jet plane full of fuel to build another Great Pyramid is that we don’t have a efficient way to distribute and organize that energy outside of using human slaves on a many decade time scale. We have to burn it rapidly and in bulk in jet turbines.

Maybe with robots we will be able to trickle small calories into efficient machines that will chisel rocks with hammers and drag them uphill.

  • CAPTCHA test

    CAPTCHA test

  • Nils Davis

    Or little nanobots embedded in roof tiles that take photons from sunlight and use them as an energy source to create – say – carbon fiber from CO2 in the atmosphere.

  • gmoke

    I’ve heard that some recent research indicates the pyramids were not built by slaves but by either paid or corvee workers.

    Putting together my notes on Daniel Pink’s book, _Drive_, on the power of intrinsic motivation over extrinsic motivation. It may be that we do not convert jet fuel into a new Great Pyramid because we don’t have the same kind of sense of purpose.

  • David Howard

    Kevin, that’s just silly. We don’t *have* to use energy in any particular way. We choose to fly planes with it now. We could take that stored energy and use it to build or run machines to mine and shape and move stone blocks, or to power an engineering office where a pyramid is designed, or even to fuel helicopters to make aerial surveys of the pyramid sites. We most certainly have ways to distribute that energy. It wouldn’t take us decades to build a pyramid. We just don’t want to.

    • @David Howard: How would you build a pyramid today using only the amount of energy contained in about 57,000 gallons of petrol fuel? You can take as long or as fast as you want, but no slaves.You could not cut and transport the first layer of stones, and feed the crew with that amount. It’s not a matter of whether we want to.

  • Troed Sangberg

    @Kevin I’d have to support the earlier poster about your use of “slaves” in this context. It’s been known for decades that the pyramids weren’t built with slave labor, but the myth keeps getting propagated unnecessarily.

    • @Troed: I would include indentured servants and serfs in my definition of slaves at that time, but I am willing to have my mind changed. Is there a particularly convincing source you can point me to?

  • Troed

    @Kevin Sure, it’s after all somewhat new development after they found the “worker’s city” in Giza :)

    (I was there myself two years ago and saw the parts they’ve excavated so far)