Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Alexander Bird put out a biography of Thomas Kuhn not too far back. Kuhn is one of those guys who did something terribly important but nobody has really realized it... oh, a few have (snobs like me I suppose), but mostly he has gone the way of all important philosophers. Klunk.

Kuhn was the guy who posited the notion of the paradigm shift in the study of the history of science. I know. I know. Yawn. But wait a minute. I paid three bucks a gallon for regular unleaded this morning. You did too, I bet. What's that got to do with Kuhn? Well, he once wrote a book about scientific revolutions and how they come about... and what happens before, during, and after the shift of those scientific paradigms. We should revisit that book guys. It's one of those "must reads". Believe me.

A little history -- the English used to run their whole culture with wood. Everything. They cut down trees to burn so that they could make steam so that they could run machinery... but they needed lots and lots of wood to burn, and it was very much in short supply. And trees were getting a trifle thin on the ground. In fact, it was a capital crime to cut down one of them. Yup, the whole industrial revolution was sitting there on pins and needles, waiting for a way to go forward... but they needed a cheap, ready source of steam so that all those hordes of laborers could come off the farms and work in factories in the cities made up of slums. The trouble was that they didn't have a way to dig up the coal that was right below their feet. They knew all about coal and knew that it represented one solution to the problem of unlimited resources... but the damned stuff was under water. And the pumps that they had could not pump out the water in the mines so that they could lurch ahead with the industrial revolution. Hmmm.

Well, the ever resourceful English offered a prize to the first man who could design a pump that would make it possible to get ahead of the water in the mines. And low and behold... shortly after the invention went on line the water started coming out and the coal started getting mined... and the rest is history. We still use that sort of high speed "jet" immersion pump to push water out. To this day the house pump attached to your house is just the same sort of pump. Shazam! Rather than lift the stuff we get behind it and push it up the pipe... works like a charm.

Kuhn took a good long look at the process that goes into that shift in paradigms, and believe me, I believe we are in the throes of the next big shift. And what happens in our future will make the last hundred years of dependency on oil and internal combustion engines the exact parallel of buggy whips and cottage industry poverty that predated the English industrial revolution.

What we need to do is start harnessing the inventive geniuses among us. What we need is a better pump. Eh? So you tell me... why isn't our government sponsoring a prize.. coupla million should be enticing... to the first guy who can find a cheap, abundant substitute for that $3 a gallon crap that we are burning up just to get to the Handy Way Store in the morning? Who's working on fusion power? And why weren't we pouring money into that twenty years ago? Why don't we get off our asses and do something to fix this mess? I'd really like to just walk away from the tree growers and the damned ragheads and go burn something else in my steam kettle and get to work.

For starters... we should all get a copy of Kuhn's text. I think it is still in print. Here's the link. We should all do something other than just sit around whining about the damned arabs.