Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Not so common sense

click photo to enlarge
"Common sense is the collection of predjudices acquired by the age eighteen".
Albert Einstein (1879-1955), German-born theoretical physicist

Many would think Albert Einstein's view of what constitutes common sense somewhat jaundiced, but it clearly contains an element of truth. Perhaps the dictionary definition of "sound judgement not based on specialised knowledge" would receive more support. Common sense is a great quality, but it can often lead us astray, and is frequently enlisted by those wanting to cut through what they see as the obfuscation of deeper analysis.

In the debate over the environment, and in particular the production of greenhouse gases, common sense is used to support the growing of biofuels. It seems obvious that renewable sources must replace depleting oil, and will have less environmental impact. And yet, recent analysis by scientists from a range of disciplines suggest that the proposed cultivation of crops for fuel is often worse for the environment than fossil fuels. Similarly, the purchase by consumers of locally-sourced food is widely felt to be better for the environment, reducing the cost and pollution associated with transport. It just seems like common sense. Yet the production of green beans in Kenya, which are then flown to the UK, is found to be less environmentally damaging in all but the main months of the UK outdoor harvest. Apparently Kenyan beans are grown more organically, without the machinery and range of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that are used here. And, whereas the UK (and nearby mainland European growers) use heat to get early and late crops, in Kenya this isn't necessary. Research turns common-sense on its head.

I was thinking about these issues when I photographed this steam engine, 5224, a C.B. Collett design of 1924 on loan from the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, here at the preserved North Norfolk Railway line at Sheringham. I reflected on whether improvements to the coal-burning steam engine would ever make this type of propulsion compete economically and environmentally with diesel and electricity. Common sense tells me that it is unlikely, but then common sense sometimes proves to be nonsense!

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 13mm (26mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f8.0
Shutter Speed: 1/100
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -1.0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On