To my mind, the pinnacle of human engineering was realized in the classic bicycle frame; the standard diamond shape, archaically referred to as a “safely bicycle”. It is still the most common frame design and a modern bike would be immediately recognizable to the first cyclists of the 19th century. After being around for roughly 150 years it is still the most efficient mode of personal transportation and is impressively versatile. By tweaking the geometry the basic design can be made to fit any person and nearly any kind of terrain from smooth pavement to rocky slopes or even snow and sand. I personally prefer a bike constructed of high quality steel for the durability and suppleness, but bicycles have been made out of all kinds of material from iron to plastic. Bamboo is even being used to make inexpensive, reliable bike frames that can be built and repaired with a renewable material on the cheap.
As a long time advocate for fossil fuel free mobility what I’m about to say is a bit of personal heresy, but here goes: The inline 4 cylinder internal combustion engine is also a wonder of transportation engineering. Like the bicycle it has a basic form that is largely unchanged and has an elegant simplicity. The motor in a Model T could be identified in the structure of the motor in many contemporary compact cars, if the owner bothered to open the hood and could see past all the computer controlled emission components, wiring, hoses and other gizmos crammed under the hood. All that clutter has created the trade off of making it far more difficult for the driveway tinkerer to wrench on her own car but has also given us far cleaner and efficient vehicles. The forty year old “4 banger’” in Lil’ Squatch is mid way on this spectrum. The uncluttered engine compartment houses a modest Toyota 20R engine that can be approached with the typical tool box stashed in your closet and having been influenced by the 1970s gas crunch gets better milage than the average soccer mom SUV (not bad for a house). However the tail pipe could give off a fair bit more toxins when idling alongside a comparable modern vehicle.
When we got the notion of trekking to Washington DC to join the March for Science we had assumed that, of course, we would be traveling in our spirit animal/home/(relatively) trusty conveyance. A quick calculation of time available versus average velocity, not to mention leeway for unforeseen contingencies plus travel expenses meant that our window of opportunity was not ample enough and our budget a little too tight. Lil Squatch couldn’t make the journey, but I did have a new appreciation for the math necessary to get a probe to one of our neighboring planets. We needed another option and that’s how we came to choose a railroad excursion across the continent.
One thing that has been reinforced in my experience is the truth that it is not the destination, but rather the journey that is most important. You might say the journey itself is the destination, they are one and the same, that we live in the moment and that the future is an illusion. This might be a good thing to keep in mind if you ever think about taking a 3 day (each way) Amtrak ride in coach class. It’s kind of a long trip. It’s a great one though, and in many ways the most appropriate way to get to our nation’s capital in order to join thousands of others in an exercise of our democracy. The landscape rolls by in a literal cross section of it’s natural beauty and a fair sampling of small town citizenry, bookended by a few of the best, most cosmopolitan cities in the world. This mode was also, by far, the greenest method to get us there. Lil’ Squatch is best used for patient, contemplative travel where your home is where you park it. The gas burned and money spent for a quick out-and-back across the continent would have been hard to justify.
I maintain my ambivalence about driving and the ever increasing negative side-effects of car culture. I have similar, though less acute ambivalence about science. Technology has wrought destruction in myriad ways, it can serve to concentrate wealth as the benefits are rarely distributed equitably. Science, as a reflection of our intellectual capacity can also reflect our best nature. It’s all in how we chose to use our hands and minds. For me the March for Science might just as easily been called the March Against Willful Ignorance, or the March for Critical Thinking. How about a March for Indigenous Knowledge? The best science is a collective endeavor of many minds building, thought by thought, going all the way back to capturing fire and teaching each other new ways to chip a stone into a finer spear point than the one before, to the ever more complex theories on the nature of the universe. I might declare that we hit our apex in a beautifully crafted bicycle frame, hand built in the 21st century, the familiar design, constructed with care so that it becomes a joy to ride. Yesterday at a cultural event in Sequoia Nation Park I had the privilege to learn from a local American Indian how to craft a duck decoy from tule reeds. A transfer of knowledge across millennia given with generosity. Mine has a novice’s character but it is still elegant in its simplicity and I expect it would function in the same way it would have a thousand years ago, a testament to its good engineering.