Posted tagged ‘Tuesday Morning Quarterback’

On Being The Right Size (Hollywood edition).

January 25, 2008

I can’t believe it, but I am going to link to Gregg Easterbrook twice in one day without (too much) snark.

So, while his TMQ column for Monday (sic) did contain an elementary error (the planets move against a background of the “fixed” stars, not the other way round — which Easterbrook honorably corrected at the top of his next column) he gets something else quite right.

In a ramble through absurdities in the movie Cloverfield, he and his correspondents pause for moment on the issue of the monster’s size:

TMQ’s estimate of 100,000 tons for the Cloverfield monster was based on the Empire State Building weighing 340,000 tons; TMQ assumed a biological object the size of that building might weigh less, containing no steel. Kendal Stitzel of Fort Collins, Colo.,, countered, “Therein lies the rub, for there is no known bony material that could support the weight of something that large without collapsing under the creature’s own mass. This is the famous square-cube problem: when a creature gets larger, its weight (which increases in proportion to volume) increases as the cube of the increased dimensions. The animal’s strength, however, can only increase in proportion to the square of the increase in dimension. Just as the Empire State is not supported by its masonry but by the steel and concrete structures inside, you would need some kind of similarly strong biological material to support any giant monster, be [it] Godzilla, Mothra or Cloverfield. There have been giant critters in the past, but no land mammal larger than the woolly mammoth. Whales are big, but their bodies are supported by water. Dinosaurs grew to be perfectly enormous; some were an order of magnitude larger than any other land creature since. Skeletal adaptations let them do this — but they were near the limit of what is possible for critters on our planet, and the largest dinosaurs reached only a fraction of the size of many movie monsters.”

Readers with a taste for both great science writing and the history of modern biology probably know the ur-form of this idea as expressed by the great British biologist J. B. S. Haldane, in his classic essay, “On Being the Right Size.

Read the whole thing. It’s smart, witty, elegantly written, and it contains one of the earliest popular accounts of perhaps the most important single change in the practice of biology in the last century. Haldane himself was one of the pioneers in the mathematical treatment of natural selection and evolutionary theory, and he introduced the general public to the virtues of applying even the simplest quantitative ideas in “On Being the Right Size,” a simple, virtuouso tour through the implications of scale for everything an organism might want to do.

And in making the point that Easterbrook’s correspondent, Kendal Stitzel picks up, Haldane produced one of the truly great passages in all of science writing — the quotation of which is the reason for this entire post:

You can drop a mouse down a thousand-yard mine shaft; and, on arriving at the bottom, it gets a slight shock and walks away, provided that the ground is fairly soft. A rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes.

Splashes!

That’s real writing. Once read, it is impossible to forget the idea within the image.

Image: The Darley Arabian (one of the three founding horses of English thoroughbred brood stock. After 1704. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Update: More on Huckabee’s 100 mpg car (he wishes).

January 25, 2008

In this post I ridiculed Mike Huckabee’s pulled-out-of-some-orifice energy independence “plan” — the one where he proposed a one billion dollar prize (that’s right — a billion with a “b”) for someone who could come up with a 100 mile per gallon car.

Now, this idea is fatuous on many levels, anathema, I think from both right and left perspectives. Mostly it is a loser because it misses the point: energy indpendence depends on much more than increased efficiency in a use that accounts for something under one quarter of all energy use in the country. Getting there wouldn’t hurt — to the contrary — but it wouldn’t solve the problem, or even come close. (For many reasons — supply issues, oil being a resource that will begin to decline and has already been doing so for a long time from domestic sources; demand issues, given that a couple of billion folks in Asia want more of the stuff and so on; and more demand issues, given the fact that efficiency allows more people into the game, thus reducing the impact of gains on overall consumption; and so on.)

For more on energy use by sector, browse through the tables here for some interesting/depressing reading. Two things do stand out. Huckabee is right this far fuel efficiency is a problem, however feckless his solution might be. Efficiency totals for the American fleet of cars topped 20 mpg in 1990. As of 2005, total fleet efficiency had reached only 22.9. And second the SUV plague is a national security issue: over those same years, SUV efficiency went from 16.1 mpg in 1990 to a high of 17.6 mpg in 2001, and then back down to 16.2 mpg by 2003, where it has stayed. That’s a drop of about 9 % in just two years. All those Hummers and Porsche Cayennes take their toll, I guess. Given that SUVs and light trucks account for over half of domestic car/truck sales that’s just bad news. All numbers from the link above: the Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Review for 2006.

All that said, the bottom line is that if you want to increase the efficiency of US ground transportation the fastest way is through regulation: increased CAFE standards, applied to all light transport, with no distinction made between cars and light trucks. That’s something everyone knows, and no one –especially amongst the GOP orthodoxy — wants to admit.

But this post is not about the “I don’t wanna” idiocies of US energy/transportation policy. It’s about 100 mpg cars. The reason Huckabee’s offhand comment in a debate was not just stupid, but silly was that, of course, the technology to produce 100mpg cars does not need some Manhattan Project to generate breakthroughs to a brave new energy future. It’s already here, and, as I pointed out in my original post — there is one production >100 mpg sports car, the Tesla Roadster, about to be delivered to customers.

In that earlier post I noted that the 2008 model year is sold out. Since then, Tesla Motors has opened the waiting list for 2009 — so if $5,000 (against a base price of $98,000) is burning a hole in your pocket, go for it.

But I must say that I was perhaps too triumphalist in my crowing over Huckabee’s so-yesterday grasp of the technological possible. Tesla Motors has just deeply disappointed me. As the Wired’s Autopia blog reported yesterday, the high performance engine, capable of propelling the two-seater from 0-60 in 4.0 seconds, overwhelmed two different transmission designs. So when the car actually ships in March (promises, promises) it will come with a temporary fix, a beast of a transmission that can handle all the power generated, but that cuts acceleration to a mere 5.7 seconds for the 0-60 run. A newly designed transmission to restore the promised performance is promised for later model run cars (and as a retrofit to the tortoises off the line first).

All together now: awwww.

Now, its true that cars that cost less than $30,000 — the Nissan 350 ZX and the Ford Mustang GT for two — could smoke the transmission hobbled Tesla on the flat. But loathe as I am to agree with Gregg Easterbrook on anything, he’s right in the item in this column that ridicules the need for speed that is safe (and legal) only on the track.

Meanwhile Mike Huckabee’s naive paean to salvation by the technological deus ex machina (two dead languages in the same sentence — I’m cooking now) is simply a distraction from the real business of using policy incentives to change energy behavior. The big problem is not going to go away in the flash of a speeding Tesla, however delicious its technology may be.

And if you think that this was all an excuse to put up another couple of pictures of the car…you’re right.

(And if you think that I, c. 50 y. 0. want to live my second childhood in one, you’re right again.)

Images: Lesser Ury: “Paris, Sonnenaufgang,” 1928. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Tesla Roadster, taken Sept. 27, 2006, licensed under Creative CommonsAttribution ShareAlike 2.0. Source: Wikipedia Commons.