We don’t know everything. What is life? Where does consciousness reside? Why are we here? How do bees and ants manage complexity with tiny brains? Are we alone in the universe? Is this the only universe? What is reality? What is art? What is electricity? What’s the next big thing? Who really shot JFK, JR, Mr. Burns? Why don’t my books sell better? What’s happening within the delayed choice double slit experiment? (Okay, that one’s kinda geeky, but very spooky.) Does cold fusion work?
Some truths are lost to history. Subjective questions and mysteries rule the realm of religion and philosophy and may never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction. Sometimes unknowns exist because they truly are mysteries. Sometimes we don’t have answers because we don’t have the right vocabulary for the questions. Objective mysteries are the sort that are answerable and are what keep scientists busy. Even there though, mysteries are created by using the wrong words to ask the right questions. But at least we are trying.
Ideally, objective conundrums are solvable by logic and the scientific method. We have a hope of answering them, yet despite this technological world that we have created, many things we rely on involve mysteries that we ignore as long as solutions exist. The major scientific programs of the mid-twentieth century proceeded amidst great unknowns. The Manhattan Project didn’t know if the first nuclear bomb would fizzle, blow up, or ignite the planet’s atmosphere. The Apollo Program didn’t know if life in far orbit was possible, or if the lunar lander would sink when it finally contacted a sea of dust in a crater. Modern computers operate with such fine wires that quantum mechanics is no longer a philosophical debate, but an operational concern. We didn’t have all of the answers, but we worked from our solutions.
My definition of a scientist is someone who seeks the truth objectively. My definition of an engineer is someone who seeks a solution. (note: No college degrees are required for either of my definitions.) Of course, in modern life the distinctions are blurred. Engineers, scientists and technicians are lumped into the category of geek or nerd. In major corporations, geeks or nerds can be treated like bureaucrats, endlessly filling out forms and trying to justify their existence to non-techie managers who can never truly understand. Less gratifying is a technical job that becomes only hand-holding, walking others through complicated yet important processes. Imagine spending years of your life learning the appropriate math, physics, and pragmatic philosophy, yet being sent to other continents for weeks to make sure that a supplier’s bureaucrats fill out the paperwork correctly. That work doesn’t change truth, so it doesn’t require a scientist. That work doesn’t require a solution, so it doesn’t require an engineer. Lifetimes of education are misused.
Aside from the distractions of large organizations like corporations and federal agencies, there is a need for truths and solutions. If time allows, truth can precede solution. If time is critical, solution may precede truth. Just ask a firefighter. Do you want the truth behind the blaze or do you want the fire put out?
During the Apollo and Manhattan programs there were perceived needs. Solutions were wanted now. Scientists acted more as engineers. Engineers acted as engineers. Technicians that acted and solved problems were re-titled as engineers. We are currently facing situations that are defined by their perceived needs. Pollution, energy consumption, food production, sea life depletion, over-population, etc. The list is familiar and too long and too depressing to complete. We want solutions, but global scrutiny can stall progress by demanding absolute truth, certainty, and guarantees. Companies, especially large ones, are overly cautious because they can’t answer every question asked of them, none of us can, yet they can be taken to court and interrogated mercilessly. Solutions languish.
The press and public opinion enjoy making fun of the flaws of authority figures. Intense enough exposure can kill innovation or drive it far underground. Remember cold fusion? In 1989, two electrochemists, Fleischmann and Pons, discovered that they could initiate a reaction that produced more energy than it consumed. That suggested cheap, renewable, possibly clean energy. They couldn’t explain the process in detail and were laughed out of their careers and the public spotlight because less innovative physicists claimed it was impossible to have fusion occur in such a small vessel with such small energy required with so little radiation and pollution. It would be no surprise that the career aspirations of hot fusion scientists may have affected their perception of events. The debate centered around claims of fusion rather than claims of cheap, renewable, possibly clean energy. Fleischmann and Pons didn’t have the truth behind their discovery, but they had presented us with a solution. We ignored it because they possibly used the wrong working title.
Last month the news from Italy was that a 1MW power plant would begin producing power from cold fusion. The pundits reached back to reuse the old counterarguments. The developers don’t have the truths documented. The arguments may become moot if they have produced a repeatable and dependable and clean power source, a solution. The arguments will also be moot if the system doesn’t work.
In America, it has become fashionable to proudly stop others. The political parties seem to do nothing but try to stop each other. Doing things for us is secondary to doing things against each other. Imagine if in 1989, we hadn’t laughed Fleischmann and Pons out of the country. Imagine if their invention and discovery had succeeded. For the last twenty years we would have been decreasing our oil imports, had less reason to go to war, had cleaner air, less strip mining, and would have led the world towards a more sustainable future. We may have had a solution even though we didn’t have every answer.
These devices tend to be small. The reactor for that 1MW plant is only one liter in volume. Imagine electric cars that never need to be plugged in, or backed up with gasoline engines. Almost every vehicle would be lighter, quieter and cleaner. Decentralized power and energy could allow houses to come with their own power, just like they have their own water heaters. Power lines would come down across the country. Power outages would be household events instead of regional emergencies. Fewer homes would heat with coal, gas, propane, or wood, unless they wanted it. The implications of what we’ve potentially missed are staggering. Without going to war and with fewer ecological catastrophes we probably wouldn’t be a debtor nation and many lives would’ve been saved. The planet would be healthier.
I mention those implications because if their 1MW powerplant operates as claimed, then our lives will change dramatically, and no one blog post is going to capture the consequences; but the vast majority of people will be caught unaware.
I do know that there are preparations that can be made. I certainly won’t invest in coal, gas, or oil stocks. I will watch to see which public company leads the revolution, as an investor if nothing else. And I will prepare myself for the traumas and dramas that will play out in entrenched bureaucracies, industries, corporations, and governments. Middle East policy will probably change unimaginably.
Do I think this will happen? I don’t know if cold fusion, whatever it really is, will succeed; but, I do know that it or something similarly revolutionary will occur. Human history proves that out. Revolutions happen. Maybe the revolution is cheap, portable, clean, renewable energy. Maybe we find a way to cure most ailments and diseases cheaply through mass produced stem cells. Maybe the planet teaches us how to treat it sustainably. Maybe we meet a civilization that isn’t from this planet. I don’t know. But I do know that laughing at every idea is a sure way to end up on the wrong side of the joke in the end.
Cold fusion? Sure, why not? You got any better solutions?