The zillion-piece jigsaw puzzle in my head
So why in the hell am I up at 4:00am, thinking about bolts? It’s a simple concept after all. A bolt is just a type of screw, which is a circular inclined plane: apply torque around its axis and you get force along the axis. Instead of sleeping, my addled brain is reciting bolt specifications: diameter, length, shank, head style, thread style, thread pitch, alloy, grade, plating. But I probably missed a few; shop class was 37 years ago. Even today if I see a thread pitch gauge I know what it is and how to use it.
Bear with me, please. I must be going somewhere with this. It certainly goes beyond bolts…
Most people are vaguely aware that bolts hold their cars and their lawn furniture together, but the sheer variety of bolts is over the horizon. Two bolts might look the same, but you better hope the engineer who specifies the bolt that anchors your seat belts knows what grade to use.
Bolts are just one tiny part of the industrial reality all around us. There are special arc welding rods whose only purpose is to deposit a super-hard bead on a surface. They are useless for connecting one piece of metal to another, but good for improving the surface wear durability of, say, a backhoe shovel. There are lubricants whose only purpose is to keep screw threads from seizing under load. Other lubricants, like molybdenum grease, are made for high-pressure applications, while lithium grease is for sliding applications. Or super-light oils for the tiny bearings in your watch – which are themselves made of artificial ruby. Rubies, artificial or otherwise, are aluminum oxide with chromium impurities. They’re fantastically hard, though diamonds are much harder.
Metallurgy is crucially important. If you are driving a really small car, you should hope the manufacturer specified a boron-alloy steel for the passenger cage. Your passenger airplane is probably held together with several different kinds of rivets, unless it’s a new Boeing Dreamliner, in which case it’s mostly reinforced plastic and held together with glue. The wires in your toaster are a nickel-chromium alloy; the magnets in your Toyota Prius were doped with dysprosium, which China is currently withholding from Japan. At one time there were dysprosium mines elsewhere in the world, but the Chinese put them out of business by selling below market value.
This could go on all day; I hope it doesn’t.
I don’t know why my brain decided bolts were important at 4am but I can see that like most things, the simple idea gives birth to complicated reality. The standards and infrastructure that we live with now took literally centuries to develop – including machines that mass-produce bolts so you can go to Farm & Fleet and buy them by the pound.
OK, that gets me to 4:30 am and my mind is still wandering. Suppose you wanted to introduce a new style of bolt? It’s been done many times, and the new styles didn’t replace the old ones; they just made the textbooks fatter. Engineers have an ever-increasing set of options, old and new, to realize their designs. Sometimes they opt for the old designs because Marketing told them to avoid confronting customers with anything that might require purchasing an uncommon tool. This is true all the way up the scale from bolts to how electricity grids work, or how we fuel our cars to get to work: an intricately interlocking puzzle of industrial standards and consumer habits (plus corporate inertia and short-sightedness) push up the social and financial cost of change.
Implementation of new ideas always stumbles. When railroads first started building bridges of cast iron (a new wonder-material), spectacular train wrecks followed. The material was incredibly strong but no one knew about metal fatigue. Then Henry Bessemer invented a way to mass-produce steel, which combined ductility with strength and suddenly it was economical to make train bridges across wide rivers. Economic growth followed rails into new territory.
If a time-traveler went back to the early days of the industrial revolution and started describing the complexity of today’s infrastructure, he’d have been laughed out of the room. But suppose the time-traveler came from our future, describing tomorrow’s infrastructure? What if the message was a warning: you need to change as fast as you can, and hang the cost?
Corporations, consumers, citizens and governments too often make decisions based on slogans or group identity, or on what’s familiar and what will sell. I can imagine the time-traveler going home in disgust. “They’re a lost cause”, he might say; “all they care about is big stores, cheap goods and waving their flags around.”
The same might be true of social change. What if a time-traveler on the bar stool next to yours said that someday, the way we currently fund education or medical care or handle drug enforcement or the way we mistreat minorities and exploit the environment would be a source of national shame, and we could have a much better world right now by using our imaginations and our brains?
Turn on the TV or the radio and you’ll hear a whole pundit class of people who want things to be simple again, but the truth is; things never were that simple. Like homeowners buying a pound of bolts at the hardware store, we simply never gave the hidden complexities any thought. So proposing new models and new solutions has always been a shocking act: “How would that work, exactly?” What would it mean if we couldn’t let children work in our factories anymore? Nobody could afford textiles anymore! What would it mean if the civil rights law were passed? We’d lose all our freedom! Emphasis on “our”.
We don’t have time-travelers, but we do have a close approximation in scientists and historians, which is to say people who look for the complications that follow simple ideas. It might depend on our ability to embrace complexity over simplicity, to keep learning about an idea until its connections and effects become apparent, and to imagine what it would be like if things really were different from the way they are now.
I guess that’s why I don’t sleep in the small hours of the morning. My head keeps skipping from one thing to another, to another and then another. Not a very interesting point, I guess, but it’s something for amusement the next time you bolt some furniture together.
OK, it’s five O’clock. Guess I’ll go upstairs and get some breakfast. Yogurt and some toast. That gets me thinking about the dairy industry and wheat farming, and nuclear power that makes the electricity that powers my refrigerator and my toaster, and about uranium mining and yellowcake and…
OK, it’s three days later; I took the picture of a bolt to illustrate the post, but I still keep thinking about the connections. Where’s the nickel (which plates the bolt) mined? What’s the state of mine-safety technology? Do mining companies pay lobbyists to keep the laws lax? Or more likely, does the manufacturer just buy the nickel salts for plating from some third-world country where the government doesn’t protect the workers or the rivers or the children who live along them? Is that why the bolts are so cheap? What’s the external cost of the carbon output from manufacturing the bolt? Maybe that’s the reason I saved the bolt that was left over from a project of years ago. Or maybe I’m just really cheap.