Sunday, November 04, 2007

The future's so bright I have to close my eyes

A few weeks ago, a breathless woman called in to the Ed Schultz Show on Air America Radio to say that a scientist had discovered a way to burn water and wasn't it horrible that the biased media were suppressing the story? I like Schultz, but I was amazed that he credited this claim.

The myth of the water engine being kept from us by greedy oil interests goes back to the early days of the internal combustion automobile and was used as a scam during the depression, but that it should survive today is a testament to the decline of science education in America. The scientist in question had been passing a current through water and of course that produces hydrogen gas and oxygen gas which can recombine or burn. Although this experiment is to be found in high school science textbooks of the 1850's, the fact seems to be unknown at least to one Ed Schultz fan as well as the fact that the energy recovered from burning the hydrogen is less than the energy that went into producing it. The oil companies aren't concerned with suppressing this "technology" any more than they are with suppressing alchemy and witchcraft.

The current (Nov 12) issue of TIME has one of their regular, "Gee Whiz" collections of press releases touting new technology. Some of it as old as I am or older, like water injection for internal combustion engines. I don't expect that many of the eager young journalists remember its use in WW II aircraft engines or the 1962 Oldsmobile 442 Jetfire for that matter, but it's fun to watch the kids get exited and call it "The return of steam."

Anyone who spent his youth reading Popular Science can recall a huge number of Gee Whiz inventions just around the corner that never happened and in most cases never could have, but Looking at TIME's SAAB of the future complete with aircraft type canopy rendering it impossible to enter or exit the vehicle in the rain and making it difficult to open the car in a northern winter without dumping a hundred pounds of snow on the leather upholstery I have to ask why the "designers" couldn't imagine a future a close as next Wednesday.

I don't imagine we'll be seeing anything like the Flintstonesque "autonomous automobile" either, with its lawnmower size wheels, absence of any weather protection and it's need to be parked outside for days to enable the integral windmill and solar cells to recharge its battery. I wonder how many people could replace their family car with what is essentially your father's golf cart?

I think experience teaches us that the things that are predicted to change the world rarely pan out while the unforeseeable breakthroughs lead us to things we or science fiction writers couldn't imagine. I still have electronics magazines from the 1950's insisting that vacuum tubes will remain the basis of future technology and I remember others insisting that the family car would be able to fly by 1970. I grew up on Sci Fi stories about space travel in the late 20th century with levitating driverless cars and people in skin tight jumpsuits living in glass bubble houses but without pocket phones or personal computers or Global Positioning satellites or the World Wide Web.

Still, in a world that wants us all to look backward toward ancient myths, invisible spirits and magic for our salvation, perhaps I should be pleased that people still daydream about a better future even if we always get it wrong.

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