Monday, April 9, 2012

MAE WEST on Modernity : rubes....

Michael Marshall
The hallmark of  THE AGE OF MODERNITY ( aka THE AGE OF MASCULINITY) was to mistake size for sophistication, which as MAE WEST once famously quipped, is the mark of the male rube and the unsophisticated .

God, said Modernity, not Viagra, was on the side of the Big Battalions, if you know (wink,wink,nudge,nudge) what I mean.

Mae said, in essence, "'taint the meat, its the motion..."

Still, to hear Modernity talk, the very best way to be sure to sink a 70,000 ton battleship was to send in a half dozen battleships, each with thousands of crew, and all bristling with guns and armour.

 Then use their very long range naval guns with their very big shells, to safely sink the 70,000 tonner from 25 miles away.

To destroy a mile square chemical plant ?  Just send in a few hundred heavy bombers ,(battleships of the air) , bristling with men, machine guns and armour, to safely drop lots of large bombs on it from 25,000 feet above it.

But any cursory reality check of WWII reveals that very different methods were required for real results.

One small submarine or one small dive bomber (or one sea mine, for real economy) getting in very close,time and again, proved to be much more accurate and hence much more lethal in sinking battleships and aircraft carriers.

Lethal often as well to the submarine or dive bomber.

But hot courage, not cool science, seems to work out better for this particular human activity.

Similarly, a single light, unarmed and unarmoured wooden bomber, the Mosquito, seemed to do much better than the vast air armadas when it came to halting the production of chemical plants.

Sneaking in low and unobserved - something that can not be said for a stream of hundreds of large aircraft dozens flying in a formation that is dozens of miles long and wide, the Mosquito
got in 'close and personal' with the chemical plant's key bottleneck
building - perhaps its power plant or cat converter.

A single bomb, delivered close and accurately, could do the job.

The air armanda, by contrast, usually ended up dropping most of its bombs from so high up that they landed instead on civilians' homes.

In addition, that unsuccessful raid frequently cost 10% of those aircraft.

With their large crews ,that meant the lost of hundreds of young lives.

And the need to constantly build more replacement bombers  represented a large percentage of the economic output of their entire nation back home, because they were so large and complex.

They consumed resources that then could not be devoted to more useful and economic ways to end the war and save lives.

Which is to say: smaller aircraft/vessels, with their smaller crews to end up dead.

Now a chemical plant, a human chemical plant, at first glance seems to be very big and sophisticated.

Big and complex and expensive yes --- but hardly sophisticated.

"Surely not !", you exclaim, still trusting that old high school chemistry teacher.

"Just look at all those incredibly sturdily built massive reactor vessels and tubing and the incredibly elaborate instrumentation dials."

Oh yes, all those vast amounts of fossil fuels going in to heat things up, to cool things down, to heat them up again, to cool them down again.

And yes, all that energy devoted to increasing pressures to hundreds of atmospheres - hence the need for very thick and sturdy ( read: very expensive) reactor vessels.

Still not convinced ?

Well let use make some totally man-made synthetic penicillin then, using today's best chemistry.

One caveat - we will make it at factory sized scale, not in a flask like some academic with one eye an article for NATURE and another on a Nobel prize - we want to make this a profitable venture.

We will start with lots of very complicatedly made chemical reagents - themselves the products of factory-sized operations.

We will heat them up/cool them down and pressure them up/pressure them down, from reactor vessel to reactor vessel,  chemical step by chemical step.

The basic ingredients of penicillin itself cost pennies , but the reagents needed to make it are very expensive so we need to recover them , as well as very expensively separate them from the chemical results at each step of the process.

In fact purification is the most expensive part of this whole business - we will end up sticking this in someone's bloodstream after all.

But purification isn't the fatal step - it is the level of yield after one run through ( infinitely tiny) versus the total sunk and operating costs (huge).

We can run the results of one batch back through the system to increase the yield a bit ,and so on over and over, but it is still very expensive for each iteration.

This is how the world made most of its nuclear weapons, cascading the tiny initial yields of the gaseous diffusion process, back into the system over and over, in plant buildings about a mile square.

It cost trillions but cost is no object when it comes to killing people; however if we want to save lives, we need be practical and prudent and make a profit.

Synthetic man-made penicillin would be too expensive to use - we would be shifted - as patients and doctors - to using cheaper but less effective drugs.

Or ?

Or we could switch to the chemical equivalent of the tiny submarine, dive bomber and Mosquito.

Dr Martin Henry Dawson was a decorated soldier of the First World War --- but in the Second World War, he was a civilian.

His 'war work' was not directly in the weapons business - he designed no dive bomber or submarine - he was a medical doctor not a PhD.

But he come up with the medical equivalent of the small, cheap dive bomber, submarine or Mosquito .

The living fungi cell, far too small to see, is a complete penicillin producing plant in itself.

It does the job without huge heavy reactors or heavy outlays of energy - because it makes penicillin in ordinary temperatures, at ordinary atmospheric pressure, in relatively few steps.

Best of all, these factories, when they are not making penicillin, will make duplicate chemical factories of themselves, out of agricultural waste and a little dirty water !

In fact from one tiny cell or spore, invisible to all but the best microscopes, using only a few pennies worth of agricultural waste and tap water, you will quickly see trillions of tiny chemical plants springing up, producing useable amounts of the life-saving penicillin.

Rather than using huge amounts of scarce and expensive stainless steel reactors and complicated and expensive instrumentation equipment, penicillin could have been made in underused rural milk plants using underemployed and unskilled rural workers living in their already built homes.

(For new urban housing for tens of thousands of new urban workers was one of the scarcest materials in every nation's war effort.)

Sophistication, I am saying, includes lateral thinking outside the box, and is frugal and economical not simply big for the sake of impress-the-locker-room bigness.

May I suggest that the women who grew most of the natural penicillin that we used in WWII appreciated this fact much quicker than the men ever did ?

WWII  demonstrated one thing for sure: God - the God of sophistication - is on the side of the Small Battalions.....

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