People have lost the ability to think now that they are firmly in the grip of the cult of technology.
By Ted Mitchell
Published November 08, 2006
We live in a world of technology. Technology is based on science, but these days, we regard science with suspicion even as we revere technology as the cure for our woes.
Well, with few decades of high technology behind us, let's look at a representative example: Automobiles have become vastly more efficient and cleaner burning since the late 1970s, mainly because of computer-controlled fuel injection, catalytic converters, and ever closer manufacturing tolerances.
So what is has happened to pollution and fuel efficiency? The former is staying the same, and the latter is actually slightly worse. Why the failure of technology?
In fact, it is not a failure of technology, but of human thinking that ignores simple science. If you have a more efficient, cleaner engine, you can choose to drive a larger, more powerful (and, most importantly, fashionable) machine, and of course drive it farther and farther each year.
Despite better technology, an irrational thought process leads to egregiously wasteful behaviour. Albert Einstein famously said, "The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking... the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind."
Einstein's words apply to far more than just the atomic bomb. They apply to all of the problems arising from taking technology on faith while failing to think scientifically about the consequences of your actions.
So, back to science. Let's do some debunking cases.
Let's say you are overweight. It seems like nothing that you do has any lasting result. Expensive techno-diets don't work, and exercise, well, it's so hard. It's beyond science!
Well, not really. The first law of thermodynamics is very simple: Q-W=0.
It can be applied to anything, even you. Q is heat, or in this case, the food you eat. W is the work that you do. Zero means that if these quantities are in balance, your weight will stay the same.
Taken at first iteration, if one of these variables gets larger or smaller while the other does not change, you will either gain or lose weight. This is a law of nature, and no, there are no exceptions.
Failing a digestive disease, you absorb most of the energy from the food you eat. Moreover, this factor does not change much between people. All food can be converted into equivalent calories, which are simply units of energy.
Now, certain foods may make you feel more or less full, so you either stop eating or you don't, but a calorie is a calorie regardless of what food it comes from. So far, the playing field is level.
If you eat more but work the same amount, you will gain weight. In fact, for most people the work actually increases slightly when you eat more. Have you ever felt hot while digesting a large meal? That is your body burning off some extra calories for no effort. In other words, despite your best efforts to gain weight by eating more, your body is trying to counteract that effect.
If you eat less and work the same amount, then you lose weight, right? Again, not quite, because the amount your body works doesn't stay the same if you stop eating. Your body goes into "starvation mode", the basal metabolic rate (BMR) falls, you feel colder, and this slows your weight loss.
So from the standpoint of changing Q, W also changes slightly to counteract the effect of your overeating or starvation attempts. However, since eating is a conscious behaviour, from the standpoint of W, Q is not affected.
Taking these facts together, this means that exercise is the more powerful factor in determining weight. Let's demonstrate this by looking at it from the work perspective, assuming a constant, adequate food intake.
There are two components to work: BMR and extra exercise. Assuming no medical conditions such as thyroid disease, your BMR is fairly constant. Exercise, on the other hand, comes in many forms.
The most obvious is the most painful: hard aerobic exercise. A runner could easily burn five times the resting amount of calories, and this obviously will make a dent in your energy stores. But it may also build muscle, which is denser than fat. So, your weight may not even change, but your body will.
People rarely run for long periods. Our runner goes out for an hour a day, so the difference between being sedentary and running is:
Sedentary: 24hrs x 100W BMR = 2400 Watt-hours/day
Running: 23hrs x 100W BMR + 1 hr x 500W exercise = 2800 Watt-hours/day.
This is a difference of 17 percent per day, or about 350 calories.
Then there is the difference between the truly sedentary person and the one who moves around a lot. Most people do not know which one they are ? what they do is "normal". Studies show that overweight people spend far more time sitting, but they are completely unaware that this behaviour is different from thinner folks.
The squirmy person (do you know a child like this?) moves constantly, perhaps burning 200W for ten hours a day, and sedentary for the rest. They do no official "exercise". Total energy burned: 10hrs x 200W + 14hrs x 100W = 3400 Watt-hours. This is 42 percent more than sedentary, or about 850 calories daily.
"He doesn't stop eating but he's thin as a rail". Yes indeed. It is not beyond science.
Our infotainment media give massive coverage to dietary advice, splitting the proverbial nutritional hairs, and sexy advertising of techno-home gym equipment. In reality, a bit of science and medical observation tells us what matters most is how much you move, and how much you sit.
In case you are still skeptical that exercise is more important than diet, it is always instructive to observe the real world. In this case, visit an old-order Amish community. They are very active, but according to nutritionists, eat all the wrong foods. What do you see?
It is an unfortunate irony that the universal symbol for a "bright idea" is the incandescent light bulb. In this day of revering high technology, sometimes we refuse to use its best offerings.
The incandescent bulb gives off radiation when heated. Most of that radiation is long wavelength infrared (heat). Some of it is visible light. How much? You're not ready for the answer yet. Let's back up.
To provide that heat, we start at the power plant. Coal, gas, oil, or uranium (high grade energy) gives off 300 watts of heat (low grade energy), which heats pressurized steam. The steam expands in a turbine, which drives an electrical generator (to make high grade energy) and sends the juice to your home.
Because of the second law of thermodynamics, only a small part of that heat energy can be converted to electrical energy. Furthermore, there are losses in wires and transformers on the way to your house, and only about 100 watts out of that 300 we started with can be used by you. The other 200 watts are lost to the environment as low temperature waste heat.
You flick the light switch of a 100 W bulb, short-circuiting high grade electricity to produce intense heat in a tiny tungsten filament. You have a bright idea! It comes to you as in a dream, the Planck distribution of radiation.
Madly, you search a heat transfer textbook and discover that, a 2800 K source gives off 6 percent of its light in the visible spectrum. That is, your 100 W bulb gives off 6 W of visible light, and 94 W of heat.
By the way, trendy halogen bulbs burn a little hotter, so there is about 8 percent visible light. On a DC transformer system, it will be back to 6 percent or less.
So, what happened to that 300 W of non renewable energy?
Net: 2 percent nonrenewable energy efficiency (!)
Worse, you forget to turn it off when you leave the room, or else your "security light" outside stays on all day.
We now have compact fluorescents that produce the same amount of light as a 100 W incandescent, which use only 20 W. More precisely, that is 6 W of light energy (spectral, not black body) and 14 W of heat.So for the same lighting result and comparable color rendering, we have:
Net: 10 percent non-renewable energy efficiency.
Still embarrassing, compared to something as ultra high-tech and efficient as a window, but not unforgivable.
Why is the technological fix, a factor of 5 improvement over the old "bright idea" not widely accepted (and this despite a payback period of a year or less on the greater purchase price)? Maybe subsidized public power systems have their drawbacks.
Science, we need you back. People have lost the ability to think now that they are firmly in the grip of the cult of technology.
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