STRANGE BUT TRUE
Q: Dust off your crystal ball and try looking 50 years into the future. When sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov did this 50 years ago in 1964, how well did he hit today’s mark?
A: As expected, Asimov had plenty of savvy technological hits, anticipating self-driving cars, video calling, widespread use of nuclear power, and single-duty household robots, says David Pogue in Scientific American magazine. Asimov also worried about coming world overpopulation, estimating it at 6.5 billion, which isn’t far off today’s 7.1 billion. However, Asimov missed in that homes under ground and under water never became popular, nor did cars and boats that levitate on jets of compressed air.
Actually, many of his prognostications fall into a third category of technologies: feasible today, but not yet commonplace. These include moving sidewalks in airports, but not on city streets; no moon colonies nor ones on Mars; no large solar-power stations in the desert.
As Pogue summarizes it, three lessons can be learned here about predicting the future: “First, almost every new technology takes longer to arrive than sci-fi writers imagine.” Second, not all the big ones can ever be anticipated; for example, even Asimov overlooked the coming of the Internet. Finally, “many attractive or logical developments never materialize, thanks to our own human failings. The fault, dear Isaac, is not in our engineering but in ourselves.”
Q: It’s a “growth industry,” literally, efflorescing into a number of colorful curiosities: How many? From where and to where? Processed by whom? How long from cut to vase?
A: Make that 700-plus million flowers harvested during a recent season, with 78 percent from Colombia; 15 percent, Ecuador; 2 percent, Mexico; and 1 percent each from Guatemala, Thailand and the Netherlands, says Heather Schwedel in Mental Floss magazine. Some 88 percent of these stems were processed in Miami, Fla., by more than 6,000 people working in the flower-importing industry. Points of sale included supermarkets, 49 percent; florists, 22 percent; warehouses, 7 percent; the Web, 2 percent; by phone, 0.4 percent; and others, 19 percent. “It takes about a week for cut flowers to make their way from the farm to your kitchen table.”
Q: Gasoline seems pretty expensive these days, but how does it compare with some of the other liquids in your life?
A: To answer, you need to estimate costs and volumes, says Lawrence Weinstein in The Physics Teacher magazine. We all spend too much time staring at the gas pump display indicating $3 and up per gallon, which translates to about $1 per liter (a liter is about a quart). Bottled water costs about a third as much. Crude oil at about $70 per barrel figures to about 44 cents per liter.
Next consider perfume, which can range from $1 to $1,000 per ounce (or higher), most often about $20 to $50 per ounce, putting it at roughly $1,000 per liter.
Alcohol is a bit easier to estimate: Vodka is about $30 to $50 per liter, wine from $3 to $300 (or higher) per liter.
Now ink for inkjet printers is priced at $5 to $10 for a typical container of about 10 cubic centimeters. That is about $1 per cubic cm or $1 per milliliter.
Thus, crude oil, gasoline and bottled water all cost a dollar or less per liter. Vodka goes for $50 per liter, and wine for $3 to $300 per liter. Ink for inkjet printers costs about the same as perfume, or $1,000 per liter.
As Weinstein concludes, “The next time you go out on a date, just splash a little ink on yourself. It should certainly make an impression.”
Send questions to brothers Bill and Rich Sones at email@example.com.