Little technical problems add up to big money

The Pentagon estimates that 3% of America's GDP is spent fighting corrosion.  That's right:  rust costs us $1000 per person per year.  They have an entire budgetary office dedicated to corrosion R&D.  You might be surprised, but I'm not - corrosion is a major subfield of materials science.

They could have said the same thing about friction.  In my last gig, I worked on lubrication, which saps 10% of all the energy (read:  fuel, carbon, dollars) used in the transportation sector.  That's not just cars but also heavy trucks, rail, aircraft, and watercraft, with a total energy consumption measured in tens of "quads".  That's a euphemistic abbreviation for quadrillions of BTUs of heat per year.  One quad is equivalent to about 170 million barrels of oil.  I'm not kidding.

Farther from my personal expertise, the nation's electricity distribution system is not perfectly efficient.  In getting current from the power plant out to houses and factories, about 7% of the power is lost as heat.  A lot?  Yeah.  Easy to fix?  Not very.

These are the seemingly simple scientific issues that it turns out have vast influence on our nation and our planet.  This is why we professionalized science:  because there are problems to solve that are both deep and immense.


  1. Can you tell me why it matters how a flea leaps? I heard some guy talking about it on NPR and I'm thinking, heck go ahead cut public funding for NPR if that's all they can come up with.

    Am I overlooking something cosmic here?

  2. I'm not sure I get where you're coming from. Are you asking why scientists investigated fleas? Or why NPR bothered to report it?

    Every branch of science has its claim to relevance, but I'm not a biologist, so I don't know theirs. I'm sure fleas matter somehow.

    As for the latter, well, why would I read a two-part article about trains? I didn't care about trains when I came across it. I still don't. But it was interesting to see how people think: the practical problems, the social and legal context of the railway industry, and the kinds of people that gravitate to it. Reading the article gave me another example of how things work, which now helps me understand how other things work. So, fleas? Sure, I can see how that would be useful to hear about.