Imagine a liquid which, if left out in the sun, absorbs energy from it and goes into its ‘Charged’ state. Later when it passes through the engine of your vehicle it is induced to release that solar energy without burning Oxygen, but reverts to its inert “Discharged’ state and is stored in the vehicle’s waste tank. Afterwards, at the refuelling station the inert liquid is exchanged for fresh ‘Charged’ liquid which goes into your fuel tank, and off you go again. The discharged liquids are collected, re-energised in the sun, and then recycled through the whole process; again and again and again. And because no Oxygen is is burned, no Carbon Dioxide is produced to pollute the atmosphere and warm the globe. In other words humankind would be getting all the energy it needs in a convenient form from the Sun , without damaging the planet. We’d have harnessed endlessly Recyclable Oil, or ‘RO’ for short. And why not? If cabbages can turn sunlight into chemical energy why can’t kings? Eating cabbages, burning the Oxygen which the cabbages have produced as a by-product, and then breathing out CO2 doesn’t have to be the only way we can survive. Sunlight is abundant and free. Surely, by taking thought, we can make use of it without preying on cabbages — or their fossils — and mucking up the atmosphere into the bargain? Grudges will say it can’t be done; but then they always do. As Francis Bacon wrote 400 years ago: ” But by far the greatest obstacle to the progress of science and the undertaking of new tasks and provinces therein is found in this — that men despair and think things impossible.”. Anyway I believe there’s evidence that someone succeeded long long ago:

Mind you one could reasonably argue that if RO were feasible then some creature in all the aeons of past Evolution would surely have exploited it already. The fact that none has is pretty convincing evidence against its practicality. Anyway if you do a simple sum you can show there isn’t enough sunlight out there to power a normal animal. Such a solar powered creature would have to be spread out like a blanket to catch enough of it. Surely that rules the idea out?

A slide from a Powerpoint presentation produced by my son Mathias for a talk he gave on our joint behalf at his own university, University College London back in 2005. It more than hints at what is coming next.

Almost, but not quite. I want to convince you that once upon a time there was a solar creature that ruled our skies for over a hundred million years, only to be wiped out in the great meteorite extinction which ended the age of dinosaurs.

Look at the next photo which I took in the Natural History Museum in New York in 2000:

The fossil wing of a gigantic dinosaur excavated in Texas, with behind it the complete skeleton of a much smaller specimen. The shoulder bones in particular look more like those of an ox than a bird. I was flabbergasted when I saw it because the laws of physics simply rule out such a monster from flying. But what else did it do if not fly? Bigger specimens up to 11 meters in span have been excavated since, though none is complete.

When alive the creature would have had a total wingspan of twenty feet or more and weighed around a hundred kilos. When I saw it first my hair literally stood on end. Why? Because a long term interest of mine had been the science of animal flight (principally birds) and I knew at once that the creature hanging from that ceiling could never have flown — not using normal metabolic processes; never, never, never! To stay aloft it could only have used solar power directly (and didn’t its giant wingspread resemble a blanket?).

Science is hard, mainly because there is so much to learn. We overcome that by specialising early, then specialising further again and again, learning more and more about less and less. That is all very well but it does have crippling limitations. To tackle any really ambitious project we have to form teams in order to broaden our individually narrow specialities. But what if nobody on the team is aware that fact X, from an entirely different field, will be the indispensable key to solving our problem? That happens all the time, and as we become increasingly specialised, may become the greatest brake to further progress in research.

Let’s take a famous example. Hans Christian Oersted was an undistinguished Danish scientist employed by his government to look into the hazards of storms at sea. Reading through the logbooks of ships that had survived, he could hardly ignore the frequent reports that during electrical storms the compasses on board went haywire. At the time (1820) nobody knew that Electricity and Magnetism were in any way related — but Oersted could hardly avoid that inference. So he went out and bought a battery (they’d just come on the market) and sure enough he found that modest currents would cause any compass nearby to swing dramatically. He published a brief note ( in Latin) which set laboratories across the world on fire. In particular Faraday and Ampere worked out the details of Electromagnetism, as it came to be called, and the modern world began: motors, dynamos, telegraphy, radio, Relativity, broadcasting, television, the computer — they were all waiting in the wings of history. But to set off that frenzy of invention it took Oersted’s almost accidental recognition that two previously unrelated phenomena were in fact intimately connected.

In my case the the accident was a warbler that landed on our ship during a storm in mid-Atlantic. To me it seemed like a miracle that such a tiny ball of feathers had made it out so far with no opportunity to either feed or rest. Not believing in miracles I set out to find its secret for myself, with no help from the existing literature. It took me ten years to crack the Range problem and a further two to prove that no bird weighing more than 12 kilo’s would ever fly. It could never generate the requisite power. So what was this monster doing hanging above my head in New York? It must have weighed at least a hundred kilograms,. What was more it could never have taken off, or landed safely. So how could it stay forever up in the sky? Solar power seemed to be the only possibility.

So if I am right Recyclable Oil once did exist upon this Earth — Pterodactyl’s Blood — and if it existed once surely we could synthesize it again — and save our planet?

You might suppose that everyone would be excited by such a possibility. Not a bit of it. On the contrary. Why not? It’s that bloody Specialisation once again. Palaentologists know all about pterosaur bones but don’t understand aerodynamics or physiology sufficiently well to convince themselves that pterosaurs couldn’t fly by normal means, while aerodynamicists knew how to design airliners but are not all that interested in dusty old pterosaur bones. Worst of all no one has that combination of knowledge in paleantology, aerodynamics, mathematics, physiology and energy- generation to convince themselves, or anyone else, that RO could be waiting just round the corner, to save us all. I know, because I’ve tried, and so has my son, to convince different audiences both in print and in person. Nobody has so far been able to find anything wrong with our arguments , but then nobody has so far been sufficiently convinced to publish them either

So then I grew desperate and tried to put the truth, as I see it, in a novel called Pterodactyl’s Blood, which is described elsewhere on this site, but which almost nobody has read so far. The facts are:

  • No animal weighing more than 11 kilograms could ever fly because Oxygen powered physiology is too weak to sustain the required power. Period.
  • Yet pterosaur fossils with wingspans of up to 30 feet testify that they indubitably did.
  • But creatures of that size could never have taken off ( running speeds of over 50 mph required) nor landed without crippling themselves. So they must have remained airborne, day and night, throughout their lives.
  • With Oxygen metabolism ruled out the only means of sustaining themselves in perpetual flight was direct solar power. And such was their wing area in proportion to their likely weight that this looks entirely feasible — even with moderate solar efficiencies ( less than 10%).
  • But such a departure from normal zoology would surely leave tell-tale marks in the fossil record. For instance solar powered pterosaurs could not have had feathers. And so on and so on……

What distinguishes honest science from mere speculation is vigorous Hypothesis-Testing. So we subjected the Solar Power Hypothesis to every test we could think of, and it passed. With no reasonable alternative it therefore deserves very serious consideration, especially so since it could , in principle, solve the Global Warming problem.

If you want to find out more about Recyclable Oil there are three possibilities:

Read my novel Pterodactyl’s Blood — its all in there bar the technical calculations. (described under ‘My books’ Category)

Look at the Power Point Presentation my son prepared for a seminar at his university — University College London. You should be able to see it at:

Or go direct to our rejected science paper ( which may be hard going) at:

and see what you can make of it.

As always comments are more than welcome.

PS There are several more posts on this site about Flight, particularly bird flight, even a simple primer on aerodynamics which should enable one to understand where the Range and Power Equations come from. There’s nothing genius about it, but the consequences are dramatic. That warbler for instance. Click on my Tags and Categories.

PSS We were not the first to worry about pterosaurs with such vestigial legs taking off ( see references in our Science paper) but nobody before us realised the Power-problem, which is quite definitive.

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