I like to go to colloquia. For those of you who don't live within the ivory tower
, that means I like to attend university talks in which researchers describe their work and field questions. At best, I see a human light up as she describes the tiny part of the world that she's interrogated for days, months, or even years of her waking life. At worst, the talk goes over my head and I learn more technical terms and methods.
I haven't found the time to attend as many talks since I left school. Even when I do make it out, I find that my appreciation for the event has shifted. Instead of watching the speaker and absorbing slides and graphs, I find myself looking around at the audience. Most of the attendees are researchers but a few are laymen, like me. I wonder what the other non-experts take away from the evening. I wonder if they also get lost in the jargon, and if they have questions that sound too simple to ask, like I do.
It was nearly a year ago that I heard someone pipe up with one of those humble questions that all of us should dare to ask. I was at a research talk on the use of biofuels as an alternative energy source. The talk was at MIT and the man who stood, half shouting from the audience to be heard, was older and still wearing his tan overcoat though we'd been in the warm lecture hall for more than an hour. I can't remember his exact words, but he said something like this:
"I know this is off topic, but there are a lot of smart people in this room, so I just wanted to ask... Why don't we use the energy from gyms to power stuff? It seems like such a waste."
That's where the memory fades. I'd like to say that they answered his question and pointed to health clubs
that do just that and that they mentioned the considerable efforts
that made stationary bike generators a power option for people in developing countries, but I don't remember.
As far as I know, the major obstacle to harnessing human energy is the same one that plagues plans to harness wind and wave power. The potential for energy generation is there, but the infrastructure that could let us take advantage of it isn't in place yet. We can build great fields of wind turbines, but if we can't get the power back to the grid
, it doesn't help.
Of course, there's always the option to do it yourself
, at a one-person scale. But I don't mean to discuss the practicality of using a gym as a generator. My mind is on the interaction between the public and science. Science and engineering, in my experience, are driven in part by stupid questions--No, no, I don't mean stupid questions. Simple questions. Like: Why does this work the way it does? Could this be better or more efficient? Could we make things easier for humans or easier on the environment?
Scientists ask these simple questions in complicated words that make the question easier to act upon. That's intimidating. I ask in simple words that make me sound like a child. But I feel that now is a time to ask those questions of science.
Not because scientists have been negligent. I fully believe that minds more suited to the task than mine have already devised solutions for some of our energy woes. Much of the technology that we need already exists. I don't know the half of it, and that's
A new science building was erected on campus, right before I left college. It was a pretty building, but it didn't have any green
qualities. When I asked why, I was told that cost was an issue and that the building committee hadn't been aware of all the options. The last part of that worries me. We, the average people, need to be familiar with the solutions already available, and there's no quicker way of learning about this world than asking brave, simple questions.
Share on Facebook