science sceptic

I bought myself a Citizen Eco-Drive watch. It’s great, I’m really happy with it; it looks good, it’s waterproof; but I bought it because it will never need a battery replacement or a wind-up.
It’s powered very successfully, by the sun or artificial light – that was important because I live in Seattle.

That was the selling feature for me, and it’s a significant one. Just think of it, an affordable device that uses only sustainable energy. That leads me to conclude that one day my car will be able to function as it does now, on the same power source as my watch. Well the truth is maybe it will, it’s very likely… but maybe it won’t. And my point is the we have just got to be real about Science, I’m all for congratulating scientific achievements – but not before they actually are achievements.

Let me give you an example: Admiral William Leahy advised President Truman in 1944 on the possibilities of an Atomic bomb: “That is the biggest fool thing we have ever done [research on]… The bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives.
Eleven years later Alex Lewyt, president of Lewyt Corp said: “Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality in 10 years.
And they were both wrong, one by underestimation, the other by overestimation.

Many science articles use words like, “soon to be,” or, “on the brink of;” “10 years from now,” and, “scientists can’t yet… but soon they will be able to…” Maybe they will, and maybe they won’t. Either way let’s get out of the habit of congratulating them on theories. Theories are not solutions, and solutions are not products.

Now I’m not for one moment suggesting that theories are poor tools. They are extremely useful things, most of the world operates outside of the realm of theorizing. I’m also not suggesting that science has somehow failed us, it certainly has not. Science has helped us, enormously. If anything science has helped us too much and we have failed science. We have elevated it to a hallowed position, which can only harm it, and consequently all of us.

I work in the graphics industry, so when someone says to me, “just photshop this picture,” or, “but can’t you just make it do that on a web page.” Then I know that they know enough to trust my technology, but not enough to understand its limitations. And I’m pretty sure it’s the same in every other industry.
Nothing is as simple as the movies make out.
In this article Wired’s Jonah Lehrer describes the issue very well.

Anyway, I am hoping that one day I can drive a car powered by the sun. Wouldn’t it be neat to be able to turn solar radiation into energy? Maybe one day we’ll be as clever as the trees.

5 Responses to “science sceptic”

  • Graham:

    Hi Al
    There are plenty of nuclear powered vacuum cleaners – for e.g in Cape Town when Koeberg is running (and doesn’t have a loose bolt flying around in a turbine):-)

    Technology, and in a way science, fails to achieve when it isn’t throughly tested before being released, via a sales transaction, to eager consumers. This may be due to financial pressures to make a solution a product.

  • Alan:

    hahaha – does Koeberg generate enough power to run a vacuum cleaner? Hmmm, I didn’t know that.

    “Technology, and in a way science, fails to achieve when it isn’t throughly tested before being released, via a sales transaction, to eager consumers. This may be due to financial pressures to make a solution a product.”
    Admit it, you’re talking about Microsoft.

  • Graham:

    Haha!
    Yup Koeberg is sending out electrons, but they are getting expensive – we might have sell the Family Joules to clean the house:-)

    Would be interesting to make a list of solutions that made production before their time:
    A couple of German car manufacturers come to mind (but so does a Japanese firm)
    Can we include politicians?
    Wind up torches are definitely there
    Childrens toys made in China
    (Or am I just to much a demanding citizen?)

  • Alan:

    hahaha: Family Joules. Whatt? No Joules

    How about the Apple Newton, and da Vinci had quite a few.

  • Graham:

    In the SA context – “Eish, no joules, Watt now?”
    (But in fairness power generation is being managed well currently)

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