Somebody Light a Match

Ronnie quietly closed the door of his bedroom and jumped back into his bed.

“Did you get it?” James asked.

“Yeah,” Ronnie answered. “I got a couple of them.”

James and I were Ronnie’s guests for his birthday party/sleepover. I was thrilled just to be invited since I wasn’t exactly an A-lister in the sixth grade social pecking order. It was October in Sioux Lookout, Ontario and too cold as well as too dark to play outside. So, after eating beans, hotdogs, and birthday cake we retreated to Ronnie’s bedroom and played with marbles, toy soldiers, and whatever else we could find to amuse ourselves. There was no television reception this far north, so childhood play was very old-fashioned. After a couple of hours, Ronnie’s mom came in and turned off the lights and told us to go to sleep, knowing full well that we would stay up talking for a few more hours.

It was after midnight and we were running of things to say when the silence was broken by the sound of flatulance. All three of us stifled our laughter while simultaneously denying being the perpetrator. I knew it wasn’t me because I would have run outside rather than ruin my reputation with a noxious cloud of natural gas. We had pretty much narrowed it down to James when Ronnie volunteered a new piece of information for our twelve-year-old brains to ponder.

“Did you know you can light them?” Ronnie asked.

“Baloney,” James and I said almost simultaneously.

“It’s true,” Ronnie insisted. “My brother learned about it in high school chemistry class.”

James and I continued to voice our skepticism until Ronnie said he’d prove it. He snuck out into the kitchen and got a couple of strike anywhere matches and now we waited for nature to cooperate. Considering our supper fare we didn’t think it would take long and we were right. Ronnie warned us that the experiment was about to come to fruition and he lit the match. In its flickering light we could see that he was on his knees on his bed with his pale white bottom in the air, jockey shorts pulled down to his ankles. He held the match near his bottom.

Without warning, two things happened quite quickly. First, a blue flame shot out of his behind. The second was that he started yelling into his pillow. At this point, I offer a word of caution to anyone who wants to reproduce this experiment. Keep your underwear on. Otherwise you will get a second degree burn in a place that is very hard to explain to other people. Ronnie couldn’t sit comfortably for days. Nor could he explain to his mother why. Our laughter at his plight carried us through breakfast.

Two lessons stayed with me from that night. One is that farts are always funny and the other is the importance of safety equipment when doing science experiments. I recounted this story to my physical science students at the beginning of every school year. They always giggled but paid attention to my safety instructions concerning use of aprons, gloves, and goggles. I am reasonably sure that some of students tried to reproduce our Canadian experiment. And that’s one of the reasons I told the story. Science doesn’t care about your beliefs. Reproducible results are what counts. And anybody can participate. All natural gas (CH4) is both flammable and the chemical consequence of the digestive processes of living creatures large and small. I think I can also trace my fascination with chemistry to that night.

As a child, I was taught in school that natural gas was a nonrenewable resource. We now know that is not true. Former garbage dumps, including here in Colorado Springs, are being tapped for natural gas extraction and home use. I remember seeing a documentary about China narrated by Lloyd Dobyns in the seventies. One fascinating part of the story was a restaurant that raised the pigs and chickens featured on the menu in the side yard. Besides butchering the animals, they gathered the manure, put it into 50 gallon drums, and after thirty days of fermentation tapped them to provide cooking fuel in the kitchen. Forced irony on the part of the animals, but extremely practical from the owner’s viewpoint. The movie Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome borrowed the idea of using pig manure for electrical generation in Tina Turner’s Bartertown.

Trump claims he is going to restore coal jobs in this country. But like many of his claims this is false. And it’s because of economic reasons not environmental. Natural gas is easier to extract and distribute than coal. Therefore it is much cheaper. Coal has to be taken from the mine, transported by truck and train, and then burned in a plant that requires expensive equipment to keep us all from choking on the air. Natural gas goes from the well, which only has to be drilled once, to a pipeline that carries wherever it needs to go. And it burns clean. Yes, there is CO2 which is a problem in the long run, but overall it is much better for the planet than coal.

As important as all of this knowledge is to our environment and economic situation, I can’t help but smile every time drive by the People’s Natural Gas office. I don’t know whether it’s a deliberate pun or a socialist conspiracy. Either way I always think of Ronnie and laugh. No matter what alternative energy sources we develop, natural gas will continue to be a part of the mix of cheap renewable energy. And as we explore farther into space, methane will play a role in our future energy needs. After all, the four outer planets, as well as some of their moons, are made almost exclusively of methane. They aren’t called gas giants for nothing. So, Ronnie, wherever you are, thank you for your sacrifice in the name of science. You can sit down now.