In 1956, my first job as a materials scientist was at the AEC’s Hanford Laboratory in Washington State, operated by General Electric. Over 8 years I conducted many laboratory scale high-pressure autoclave experiments on the properties of zirconium alloys in high temperature and pressure water and steam.
The comment goes on to explain in detail why zirconium alloys are used in nuclear reactors, and the risks. It explains exactly what happens if the fuel rods get too hot, and discusses the current situation. It is a fascinating demonstration of the detailed knowledge our commenters bring to bear on complicated issues. It is also a reminder that the schematic drawings that we put up to describe nuclear reactors are highly simplified, giving only the rough outlines of an enormously complicated system. Very few people, if any, have the entire system in their minds, so when a disaster occurs, and they have little idea of what broke, figuring out solutions is very difficult, if not impossible.
We live in a very complicated society, so complicated that no one person has even a vague idea of how complicated it is. So, here’s a story. In the summer of 1967, I went to Montreal with a bunch of my buddies to see Expo 67. The US exhibit was housed in an enormous geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller. As I recall, it featured what was then the world’s largest freestanding escalator, rising 150 feet inside the 20-story dome. I crushed the handrails with a death grip while riding to the top.
There was a rat experiment in one room, a maze in the shape of a right triangle. There was a passageway four inches wide down each of the legs of the triangle, so if a rat were put in at one of the 45 degree angles, it could run five or six feet to the 90 degree angle, turn right, and run to the other corner, where there was a tasty pellet. Between the passageways and the hypotenuse, there was a very complicated maze. The solution was hard to find looking at it from above. It was possible for the rat go through the maze to get to the food.
If you starve the rat for a while and then put it into the maze, it eventually figures out to move down the passageway to the food. The experimenter immediately repeats that process as soon as the rat finishes eating. The rat runs down the passageway more quickly and eats. Eventually the rat isn’t hungry, and it goes into the tricky maze. When it gets hungry, it leaves the maze and goes out to get food. Again, when it is satisfied, it moves back to the tricky maze. Eventually it solves the complicated maze. After that, if it is hungry, it runs down the simple solution, but if it is less hungry, it uses the difficult one.
This parable has lots of interesting implications. One is that most of people are attracted to complexity once they aren’t hungry. There are all kinds of complexity, some easier to manage than others. Keeping track of sports or the doings of a bunch of celebrities is complicated. Working on your house, growing a garden, tying flies, playing video games, these are complex. Most people are indifferent to the abstract complexities of zirconium. Unfortunately, most people are indifferent to many of the issues that come into play through politics. It’s as if when confronted with questions of taxes and bombing people and civil rights, people run down the passageways to get their pellet and ignore anything more complicated. A lot of political noise is designed to get that result.
The Tea-GOP and its fabulously rich supporters reject complexity, and insist that there are simple solutions to every problem, the same solutions they have been flogging for over 40 years. That stupid idea, that things are simple, is causing the destruction of complexity in society, reducing to rubble the accumulation of possibilities for fascinating lives that we have developed over the last century. The rich will be fine behind their stone walls in feudal but stupid splendor. The rest of us will suffer the fate of the American Bison.