Funny business, technology

25 March 1999

As we get closer to the end of the twentieth century, it becomes interesting to indulge in a little nostalgia, and to recall some of our more revered scientific and technological ancestors' approach to the end of the nineteenth century. The record shows that they, even without the aid of computers and the millennium bug, were as prone to error as are some of us.

The great scientist, Lord Kelvin, was advising that his best students should avoid a career in physics because 'All the interesting work has been done'. Another esteemed scientist, Ernst Mach, was dismissing molecules as an unnecessary hypothesis. He and his contemporaries were so cruel in their rejection of Ludwig Boltzmann's molecular-motion explanation of thermodynamic relationships between heat, temperature, internal energy and entropy (which is taken for granted by power engineers today) that the poor man was driven to suicide.

I noted from a popular exposition of modern science that, contrary to the common belief in five 'perceptual' senses, there are about a dozen recognized by authority. As well as sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell there are, for instance, the senses of balance, of joint position, of muscular tension or relaxation and of stomach fullness or emptiness. I do not know exactly what (if any) ordinal number is officially attributed to the sense generally known as the sixth – that is intuition or perception without a bodily sensor – but most of us acknowledge it even though so much of modern science is startlingly counter-intuitive.

My sixth or nth sense tells me that fallibility is as rife in this information age as ever, and that, were it not for the seventh or (n + 1)th sense – the sense of humour – entry into the 21st century could be a dire prospect.

The next time you hear a management guru pontificate on 'concurrent' engineering, or on 'right-first-time' computer-aided design, development, manufacture and marketing, just remember the salutary case of Pacific Scientific Corporation. That old-established Californian provider of motors and other artefacts announced in 1994 that it had made a breakthrough in electric lighting. Its new, dimmable fluorescent bulb, named the Solium, would conquer all. But huge projected profits turned into huge actual losses as production lamps gave inconsistent results. Some of the bulbs lit, and then relit fully after dimming as advertised, but others protested more or less noisily as they declined to come on. The Solium division of Pacific Scientific Corporation was duly and cruelly redubbed by its staff the Sillium division.

In 1997 a new chief executive put the division up for sale and said that the corporation wished 'it had done things more timidly'. He harked back to pre-guru principles: 'First you prove the technology, then you make revenue projections, then you build a low-cost production facility'. And he admitted ruefully that Pacific Scientific had tried to do everything at once. The Wall Street Journal, in its chronicle of this sad history, reported that the corporation's shares were down to US$13, having sunk from the peak of US$42 reached when the expectations, boosted by highly reputed outside consultants, had been at their headiest.

“Fallibility is as rife as ever”

Lord Kelvin was neither the first nor will he have been the last to succeed mightily in both science and industry, and yet to get things wrong occasionally. My nth sense is infallibly right on this point.

Don't always blame the press

When I was taught the elements and terminology of physics in schooldays long ago, my masters defined energy as the capacity for doing work. Power, I learnt, was – for scientific and technical purposes – the rate of doing work (work per unit time). Not so, however, according to the USA's famed Electric Power Research Institute.

An explanation of the fundamentals of 'the electric power system', given in an EPRI resource guide and fact sheet for the press, says that the term power 'represents the ability to do work' and that the term energy 'represents the amount of work that is done over a period of time'.

I doubt that EPRI researchers wholly agree. Perhaps, by the time you read this lament for my lost youth, they will have got their press office to issue a corrected briefing. If not, perhaps my EPRI readers will do the prodding necessary to restore the traditional values.


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