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What has science got to do with anything?


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What has science got to do with anything?

Just for fun this week, here are some manufacturing anecdotes that fly in the face of science.

1952 Phase 1 Standard VanguardThe first item was inspired by L.J.K. Setright, who pointed out in his (slightly conflicted) social history of the car (Drive on!), that mechanics perfected the automobile. “Scientists,” he wrote, “would have made motor cars quite differently, had they demeaned themselves enough to try it.” Setright’s comment reminded me of something I learned from a temporary job at a Mitsubishi dealership, just when I was starting out as a freelancer. The Mitsi range at that time included one of the first crossovers, the Mitsubishi Airtrek, which reminded me of the phase 1 Vanguard (pictured). What buyers liked most about the Airtrek was that it was easy to get in and out of. You don’t have to bend all the way down till your bum’s a few inches above the ground. You just put your bum against the seat and slide in. Until I saw the Airtrek I used to joke about people driving SUV’s on sealed roads. "Karori tractors", I called them. Like many people, I couldn’t figure out why SUVs were becoming more popular than cars. They burned more fuel than cars. They had crap cornering and rubbish road-holding, unless you drove them on mud. SUVs offer a comfortable upright seating position that suits people who are in and out of their cars all day, like parents with young children and small business owners. So, the car manufacturers came up with the crossover, which is an SUV without the expensive off-road drive-train. No scientist would ever have invented the crossover. Physics tells us large frontal area means high fuel consumption. Physics also tells us high centre of gravity means crap cornering. Crossover buyers don’t care. Torque vectoring computers fix the cornering and road-holding. Fuel consumption? So what? Petrol's never been more affordable, and there's every reason to think it will continue to get cheaper, relative to inflation. A lot of people seem to think it’s worth spending a few extra bucks on fuel to avoid hip and back problems from getting in and out of low-slung cars. I prefer low-slung cars that go like the clappers, but I can see why people like crossovers.

Organic food is another example. Conventional farmers buy nitrogen fertiliser as a powder they can spread on their land. Usually it’s ammonium nitrate. Organic growers use “nitrogen-fixing” plants to achieve the same goal. Symbiotic bacteria in root nodules convert atmospheric nitrogen and water into ammonium nitrate which they release into the soil. Chemistry tells us ammonium nitrate is ammonium nitrate. It’s all the same. But supermarkets get premium prices for organic produce. I’ve seen the odd hint that a market might develop for “natural” fertiliser. Many forest trees depend on symbiotic fungi that harbour nitrogen-fixing bacteria. These trees won't grow without suitable fungal symbionts, because they have evolved to depend on fungi to supply nutrients. Research into this phenomenon is ramping up. Don’t be surprised if garden centres soon start marketing products for innoculating garden soil with symbiotic fungi. Perhaps in a decade or two people will be prepared to pay extra for a house made of “organically-grown timber”. The gas station of the future might have a special petrol bowser for petrol made from organically-grown wood. It won’t be green, because that’s common-or-garden 91 unleaded. There's scientific support for the idea of innoculating soil with symbiotic fungi. It's been done overseas in Pinus radiata plantations. The rest of it's pure fantasy. There's money in that.

Some manufacturers might profit from a product that removes fluoride from tap water. Scientists in the early twentieth century showed that dental health is linked with the natural concentration of fluoride in tap water. People living in high fluoride districts had discoloured tooth enamel. People living in districts with fluoride-deficient water suffered high levels of tooth decay. The happy medium is about 0.5~1 ppm. In spite of the relatively straightforward scientific and medical data on this, some people think they are being systematically poisoned by fluoridated water. I have no idea how profitable a home defluoridator might be. If you want to find out, you could go down to the Buick Street water fountain and survey the folks who go there to collect unfluoridated water. How much would they pay to eliminate their water-collecting ritual? Or has the ritual become important in its own right?

The link between science and technology is vague and bi-directional. Scientists can learn a lot from spending time working in a factory. New technology sometimes depends on fundamental discoveries in physics, chemistry, or biology.

Long-term studies link per-capita economic growth with technology. Not science.


Kevin Cudby is a Wellington-based Freelance Writer and Parametric Modelling Consultant who loves writing about cool new technology. Email him to discuss your requirements: hello {a}

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