What cow paths, space shuttles, and chariots have in common

A colleague recently sent me a chain email (they do still exist) about the old adage on how new technology is driven by thousand year old standards. I had seen it before. I remember then I liked it. But, my new habit on chain emails or viral urban legends was to poke around. Being childlike, I hope for fun new ways too see things, but being a problem-solver as well, I am skeptical of these amazing discovery of trivial connections. Regardless, its still a fun story where one can mine some good nuggets.

The anecdote essentially notes how historical inventions are connected and a moral. Reading it backwards, it connotes how the width of the space shuttle rocket boosters are due to width of railroad tunnel. And how railroad tracks width are due to the carriage wheel width. And how that width is tied to chariot width because of the width of two horses. Point being, the boosters width is derived due to width of two horses rear-ends.

Like I said, it is fun, but the tangents are more loosely coupled and coincidental than the “seven degrees of Kevin Bacon” concept. Snopes nicely walks us through how while this is true, but only through generalities – not unlike how someone could say the clothes we wear now is because of a medieval tailor sized it that way. Snopes can be a party pooper some time, but they did also note a few things about people and change (insert my agenda HERE). This is why I do like stories like this as I can tie my own tangential take-aways from it.

Snopes points out humans presets on change:

Although we humans can be remarkably inventive, we are also often resistant to change and can be persistently stubborn (or perhaps practical) in trying to apply old solutions to new conditions. When confronted with a new idea such as a “rail,” why go to the expense and effort of designing a new vehicle for it rather than simply adapting ones already in abundant use on roadways? If someone comes along with an invention known as an “iron horse,” wouldn’t it make sense to put the same type of conveyance pulled by “regular” horses behind it?

It goes on for several more examples noting how new innovations leverage the blueprints of previous generation inventions, regardless of their direct influence. The tone felt a bit down when noting this, but I felt this continuity is not wholly a bad thing.

As a physical society that build infrastructure to share, this compatibility is needed to limit the impact of disruption while progressing towards addressing societal challenges of Maslo’s Hierarchy of Needs globally.

For example, lets say there is a future decision to stop using dams for hydroelectric power and go into a series of nano-electric generators that works off river flow that would impede water less and generators more power. This is great as we have a lower cost, simpler, more efficient solution that also does not disrupt the ecosystem such as riparian development, fish spawning, etc. like dams have for decades.

How do we transition to the new nano solution. The railroad story says we would use the previous footprint of the dam, and once ready, slowly migrate to the new solution to allow the water flow to slowly come back in place. This would allow the wetlands and riparian ecosystem to grow back at natures pace, and allow for fish and river life to adapt generationally.

Yet, the new solution does not require the same footprint. We could build it anywhere along the river. It could even be setup in a series of micro generators, and once the level of energy put into the grid matches the dams, in theory, the dam could just be exploded, and we could progress on without anyone in the future anthropocene historic footprint to be aware that a dam was ever there.

But, removing the previous infrastructure in a responsible way will be key. Blowing up a dam means the water release would cause major sediment displacement, kill the dam-resulted adapted riparians and wetland ecosystems, and generations of fish and river life would actually die as a result. The dismantling process, though not required for the new direct energy human need, is very critical to consider the indirect impact of the evolved ecosystem.

If still interested, check out the follow-up blog post So what is the point of this metaphoric drivel?