Tech Track: Simplifying concepts can only go so far
IN SCIENCE and engineering, when talking to lay people, it is important to try to simplify concepts as much as possible.
But you can only simplify to a certain point. If you go further, you risk turning an explanation into nonsense, or of making it so inadequate that it is virtually guaranteed to lead to a false impression.
I recall seeing a cartoon in which children were writing a history test. A question said: “Explain the World War II in two pages.” That will produce such an inadequate answer that it will be effectively useless for anything serious.
It makes me think of the well-known business “two-pager”, such as: “Explain how you would design a new cellphone system, but since our meetings are time-limited, keep it to less than two pages.” This type of thing, in its simplest form, is just amusing, but at the other end of the spectrum it can be positively dangerous, because it creates false impressions that take hold in managerial groups, or among the public. This can lead to massive headaches later.
Science and engineering are not simple, which is why it takes years to study them. So converting some technology issue into a public concept is quite a challenge. I recently listened to a well-presented webinar on the production of electricity.
One speaker was an engineer from Eskom, Lebo Maphumulo. She eloquently explained how the giant transmission lines work. In particular, she pointed out what can go wrong. People imagine that you can plug in the hair dryer in the kitchen or the bedroom and it makes no difference.
Well, there is a difference. It depends on where the electricity enters the house. In the case of a house, the differences are so insignificant that you don’t have to worry about them.
However, when you talk about a countrywide transmission and distribution system, it makes a big difference where and how you take electricity out and put it into the system.
Lebo pointed out that Eskom transports electricity at a frequency of 50 Hertz (Hz), and this has to stay dead steady. She correctly said that if it moved to, say, 49Hz or 51Hz, it would be a disaster for the system. Parts would start crashing, and machines and computers, and all sorts of other stuff would not work correctly.
Lebo said you cannot just let anybody produce any amount of electricity and add it into the system, whenever or wherever they like. That would be massively dangerous. But there is an incorrect public perception that anyone can just generate electricity and add any surplus to the national grid. No, not at all.
That is why there are rules about it. Companies cannot simply generate electricity and merrily “plug it in”. They don’t train heavy-current electrical engineers for years to have the same electrical understanding as a florist, so in a serious debate about electricity, it is better to listen to the electrical engineer and not so much to the florist.
You can’t have fanciful ideas that everyone will have solar panels on their roof and that they will all sell surplus electricity to Eskom at lunchtime. Over and above the sheer complexity of trying to administer such a scheme, the electrical realities are such that you can’t allow thousands of people to plug generators into the national grid when they want to.
I could see some frustration in the face of Lebo when she explained this. Clearly, she had experienced many occasions when she has tried to explain patiently, in a two-pager, to some group at a social function how incredibly complicated the national grid is.
The same is true of many technology systems. If it takes years for the qualified expert to figure it out, be wary of the social group in the pub who figure out a “better answer” over a drink or two.
Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and is chief executive of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants.