DIY culture part of New Zealand identity
Despite what the scientists say, there is always room in New Zealand for No. 8 wire, writes HAYDEN WALLES.
It is an understandable feature of the human condition to overestimate the importance of your own occupation in the wide sweep of society. So it was perhaps unsurprising to learn last month that New Zealand’s Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) view themselves as paramount in the national scientific firmament.
The occasion was the launch of Science New Zealand, an organisation formed by the CRIs to teach us, the ignorant public, of the value of science and technology. Key to this, according to the group, is eradication of the myth of the No. 8 wire and DIY ethic.
You may expect a science enthusiast such as myself to be all for such a scheme, and up to a point I am. Scientific ignorance is a widespread, yet generally unacknowledged problem. Its victims are forced to rely on the voice of authority, diminishing the power they have over their own lives. They are incapable of evaluating the claims made in the debates over scientific matters, like climate change. And they miss out on the everyday benefits of science, from avoiding quacks and charlatans to getting that last bit of sauce out of the bottle.
Unfortunately, Science New Zealand seems to be worried not so much about helping us understand science, but with making us acknowledge the contribution of science to the economy. As Research, Science and Technology Minister Pete Hodgson put it at the launch, ‘‘I’m hoping Kiwis will become more conscious of how important the scientific community is to us all.’’
All right, so the CRIs are marketing themselves with a view to protecting their government funding and drumming up business. That’s understandable. It doesn’t license them to say whatever they like, though, and it’s their disdain for Kiwi ingenuity that I take most issue with.
No. 8 wire solutions are those that emerge against the odds, when the ideal materials aren’t available, but the job gets done anyway. This is a natural way of doing things in a country as isolated as ours once was, where machinery or expertise might be weeks or months away, and often the only way to do something was to do it yourself.
As far as I can tell, Science New Zealand’s objection is that the No. 8 wire approach hinders the application of science, because the No. 8 innovators don’t consult scientists, who could teach them a thing or two. Undoubtedly there are wannabe inventors out there who combine fine craftsmanship with scientific ignorance (extreme examples are the builders of perpetual motion machines and the like). Successful inventors, though, are both ingenious and scientifically aware. Ingenuity encompasses many things, one of which is the ability to apply existing knowledge— including scientific knowledge— in new ways. Science is a useful ingredient for invention, but it is not sufficient, and Kiwi ingenuity can play just as big a part. Sure, some innovators fail because they aren’t aware of the facts, but there’s no need to blame their ignorance on their ingenuity.
Promoting the importance of science to innovation is one thing, attacking the importance of Kiwi ingenuity is quite another. One hopes that this distaste for the No. 8 wire approach comes from something more than jealousy of those inventors who do, from time to time, succeed without the aid of science.
Confused as their argument is, I fear it may have harmful effects. Apart from encouraging the view that science is essential and ingenuity dangerous in technological development, the mission to eradicate the No. 8 wire myth suggests that science itself has no place for Kiwi ingenuity, which is far from the truth.
Devising good experiments, in particular, requires ingenuity to get a generally unhelpful universe to behave as the experimenter wishes. And in a world where there are always more questions than there is money to answer them, ingenuity is an asset to the scientist. It was Ernest Rutherford who expressed his belief in Kiwi ingenuity by telling his underlings that ‘‘We haven’t the money, so we’ve got to think.’’
Finally, by damning the DIY attitude, the CRIs hint that science can only be done in big organisations. This is a common belief, even inside some scientific circles, but it is not one that I share. Science is one of the things you can do yourself. True, to study some things you need lots of people and expensive equipment, but some of the most famous names in science wrought their magic with nothing more than pencil and paper. Some people prosper as part of a group, others shun company. There is room in science for both. It would be sad if any budding young minds were put off science because they thought the best they could hope for was to be a cog in some vast science machine.
Science New Zealand is certainly right when it says that science and scientists are good for society. Just remember that there’s always room for No. 8 wire as well.
Hayden Walles is a freelance science writer from Dunedin. He is also completing a PhD at the University of Otago on cognition and language.
Wonderful wire: No. 8 wire solutions are those that emerge against the odds.