Innovation? It’s similar to a tractor pull. As a nation, we should take heed and prepare accordingly.

A vignette: in the 1990’s, I did a fair bit of government-related travel. Too many sleepless nights in distant hotel rooms, too tired to read, biological clock messed up, but there would be TV. Would tune around looking for sports channels. In most of the countries (American) football, basketball, etc., were hard to come by. But there was some of the beautiful game (soccer). There were evening summaries of (mostly-Asian) golf. There was plenty of cricket (lot of former British colonies dotted across Asia). Sumo wrestling. And then there was off-hours American sports coverage. Like axe throwing. Log rolling. Drag racing…

…and tractor pulls.

Of course, these were tractors on steroids. Any connection to the riding tractor for your 1/3-acre yard (Really? C’mon, man!) or to the big guys with the fully-enclosed, air-conditioned cabs used by agribusiness was purely accidental. The machines in question look more like tricked-out locomotives. Today’s versions, like that pictured, sport banks of V-8 or V-12 engines. Or WWII piston aircraft engines. Or turbines; in writing this, came across one powered by four. 

The actual contest? Well, after substantial minutes of prep, lining things up – tractor and driver pull a sled for several seconds, over a distance no more than 100 yards. 

Wow, Bill, that certainly must have cured any insomnia you might have had on your travels. Cricket sounds like fast-paced, nail-biting drama by comparison. And what possible connection could there be to serious society-wide innovation?

Here’s the deal. In the formative days, 1920’s farmers used their working tractors, and pulled sleds weighted by friends and neighbors, riding up top. Not enough weight? Add a few more people. The tagline? Pull on Sunday, plow on Monday. Tame stuff. Today’s sled, though, isn’t just any load. It may weigh 60,000 pounds or more, and ratchets this weight forward as it progresses. The front end of the sled has grouser bars acting like teeth, digging into the soil. In this way, the sled’s drag increases with every increment of motion. There quickly comes a point when it’s too much even for 5000-or-so horsepower machines (some powered by methanol and turbocharged; back when I used to watch them there was no mention of or interest in fossil-fuel offsets…). At this point the tractors belch satisfying amounts of flame and smoke and rear up from the effort – lucky to pull the full 100 yards. And then there are the epic fails. They’re explosive – filling the air/threatening drivers and crews with fiery blasts of tractor parts and more smoke – satisfying even the most jaded (or sleepiest) of thrill seekers. 

This is where the parallels to innovation come in: in the same way, as science and technology advance, the store of human knowledge grows along with it. Keeping track of what’s been accomplished, or what’s been tried and led only to a dead end; maintaining focus on what’s truly relevant to a given societal problem, vs. a mere distraction, becomes more of a chore to the researcher. This is a special problem for early-career scientists; successive newcomers find literature reviews evermore daunting. 

[An aside to illustrate the point. The previous LOTRW post, a tribute to my thesis advisor, referred to differences at the University of Chicago between the Department of Physics and the Department of Geophysical Sciences during the 1960’s. Here’s another difference. Physics graduate students taking the qualifying exam were expected to know all of physics (!!). And there was a lot to know. By contrast, the geophysical sciences were in a relatively nascent stage of development. There was a lot less to comprehend. And students weren’t asked to know it all; we were merely required to prove that we could learn something if we had to. With the faculty, students would work out an individually-tailored exam, covering three specific topics. Took a few months to bone up; then stood for questioning.] 

Sixty years ago, issues of the Physical Review, and Physical Review Letters, filled library shelves, containing thousands of heavily-multiply-authored articles, premised on big machines – particle accelerators, plasma-fusion reactors, etc.. By contrast, the Journal of Geophysical Research and the Journal of Atmospheric Science, were slimmer both issue-by-issue and in total shelf-feet, populated with Small Science versus Big Science.  Of course, to look at an issue of JGR or JAS today is to find several special sections and multiply-authored papers, premised on extensive observing and computational infrastructure, basically identical to the physics of yesteryear.

Even back then, Jeremiahs like Derek de Solla Price were noting inexorable trends in all fields of science towards bigger, more expensive research, requiring contributions from communities of scientists, not so much individuals, with less room for small science (and less room as well for “mavericks”). De Solla Price suggested the possibility, in a time frame as short as a century or two that the pace of scientific advance might begin to slow (note that by those lights we’re a third of the way there).

We needn’t be dismayed. After all, science really is an endless frontier. Claims over the years that science has learned all there is to learn have proved premature. Subjectively, the increasing costs of innovation don’t seem to be increasing faster than the resulting economic growth. We have examples. Take Moore’s law. In the mid-1960’s, Gordon Moore conjectured that the number of transistors fitted on an integrated circuit chip was doubling and would go on doubling every two years. That forecast has generally verified over the period since, despite gloomy predictions that it was on the verge of failure. 

The same applies to natural resources. As early as1956 the petroleum geologist King Hubbert predicted that worldwide oil production would peak by 1970. Oil production did in fact peak around then, and declined slowly for decades, until further innovation (primarily the development of fracking) greatly expanded the oil resource. And innovation in the agriculture-, energy-, and water-resource sectors has so far put paid to Malthusian forecasts of doom.

That said, innovation requires a constant societal pull, just like that sled. And society’s “tractor” needs to be robust, not frail; else it’ll self-destruct from any strain.  

Which brings us to the “prepare accordingly” part.

The innovation that matters most is the innovation of innovation itself. We see this most vividly in society when it comes to technology for developing and managing information that is innovation’s foundation. The invention of the computer has made it possible to do the trillions upon trillions of necessary sums that in turn enable control of manufacturing processes, to financial transactions underpinning global commerce, to weather forecasts, to scientific research of every stripe. The internet has enabled communication of such vast amounts of data and calculation worldwide. Development of an internet of things and robotics portends a future in which quotidian human concerns can and will be handled, to increasing extent, autonomously. Exascale and quantum computing seem to be coming online just when needed to meet demands of the big-data analytics and artificial intelligence powering the next round of innovation. As a society, we need to formulate and put into force the policies that will sustain this technological advance.

But this is only the tractor. The driver is another story:

There’s plenty of power at a pull, but driver skill usually is the difference between winning and losing.

Driving skill is critical, especially coming off the starting line. The driver must bring the revolutions-per-minute up on the engine to build the proper manifold boost so the turbos can do their job. When everything is right, the driver side-steps the clutch and the power is unleashed with a big roar.

Knowing the track and equipment is just as important. Each track has a personality of its own, and pullers “read” tracks much like golfers read putting greens.

In short – “anyone” can enter a tractor pull – sit in the seat and “let ‘er rip.” But to finish, with machine intact, let alone win, let alone win with consistency – is like everything else in life. It requires scientific and engineering knowhow, teamwork, and the discipline required to master and maintain the needed skills over a period of years. 

As a society, we need to sustain a growing, diverse workforce to drive innovation writ large. This is a policy challenge of a different kind. More in the next post.

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