I. Don't. Know.

Written by Gautam Raja

I’ve been involved in theater most of my life—my parents ran an amateur English theater group, performing everything from David Mamet to William Shakespeare to Neil Simon to Harold Pinter . (I thought it’d be fun to yaw you back and forth across genres and the Atlantic there.) They now run a performing arts center just outside Bangalore, India, with a packed schedule of drama, dance, and music.

I started working for the group as a lighting designer, and after a workshop in 1994, began writing plays. My two most recent full-length plays were part of a “TheatreScience” project, written in collaboration with scientists from the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore. We spent weeks on the beautiful NCBS campus, talking to microbiologists, shadowing them in their labs (including one session that started with a live rat and ended just minutes later with finely sliced rat brain on a glass slide), doing workshops together, playing frisbee soccer, and hanging out in the canteen.

If there was a theme to this immersive research, it was the recurring line, “I / We don’t know.” The scientists were almost proud to say it, and said it often. There were two reasons for these frequent declarations of ignorance. One was that the pursuit of knowledge is specialized to an extreme. A microbiologist who spends years studying how one particular protein crosses one particular cell wall is in danger of knowing less about science in general today than a layperson who reads popular science journals such as… well not Popular Science… have you seen it lately? (Anyone here remember Omni?)

The other reason is that while we can break down many processes to an enzyme and cell-wall level, stepping back and understanding how it works in the context of a multicellular being causes an exponential leap in complexity. The answer to nearly every “multicellular” higher context question I asked (including, “What are the potential uses of this research?”),  was simply, “We don’t know”.

You probably know where I’m going with this, but let’s detour abruptly into my other passion: bicycling. Two wheels and a frame—this is a system that’s many orders of magnitude less complex than even a single cell. (If you’re not sure about that, ask a microbiologist to describe in detail the mechanism by which a virus crosses a cell wall—it’s a Greek epic over many acts, with heroic enzymes, sneaky sidekicks, protein choruses, side skirmishes, and much love and loss.)

Cyclists have been obsessed with speed since the very start, and yet it’s only in the last couple of years that the industry is waking up to what retrogrouches have insisted on all along—that supple, tubby tires are just as fast, or even faster than, skinny tires. The problem was belief in isolated numbers—tests on rotating steel drums showed that, as expected, a narrow, harder tire with a smaller contact patch had less friction, and therefore, lower rolling resistance than a wider, softer tire.

The road may be long and winding, or take you home to the place you belong, or even become your bride, but it is not a steel drum. So guess what happens when we take those tires out of the lab and put them on your bicycle? They become part of a system, and now, those fatter more supple tires conform to road irregularities, absorbing the shocks that narrow, 100+ psi tires transfer to the frame and rider. So the fat tire tends to dissipate the energy of bumps as heat from tire flex, and the narrow tire tends to use that energy to lift up the rider, and counter forward movement. And also, since we’re now part of a system, we have to consider effects that are hard to measure such increased rider efficiency due to greater comfort, and increased rider enjoyment in terms of flow.

That brings us to an interesting reason why so many cyclists firmly believe that a narrow, high pressure tire is faster. Jan Heine, the irascible cyclist behind Bicycle Quarterly magazine, has been writing a series of blog posts debunking myths in the cycling world. In the post about tire width, he writes about a placebo effect involving vibration frequency: “The faster we ride, the higher the frequency at which our bike vibrates, because our tires encounter road irregularities at a higher speed. However, narrower tires also increase the frequency of the vibrations they transmit. Basically, a bike with narrow tires feels faster even though it may actually be slower.” [You can see Heine, Jan. 2018, January 3. 12 Myths in Cycling (1): Wider Tires Are Slower here.]

The “problem” with this system then, is that it connects with a galactically complex multicellular being, whose perceptions of the world are either easily fooled, or really only just being fully understood. And that only one aspect of the system is considered in the “proof”. For example the many people debunking high-resolution digital music saying it’s just wasting space by encoding ultrasound, not realizing, among other things, the complexity of digital filters and their effect on the audible range.

Recently, I was watching a series of videos presented by someone we’ll call Paul. Because he’s called Paul. Even though he is an audio engineer making a product that asks me to part with my hard-earned (well… earned) money, I was heartened to hear him say those three most important words: “I don’t know”.

Looking down the comments though, there was disappointment and even mild outrage that he uttered those words in public. Now, I know that a scientist beheading rats in the depths of a research lab is not an engineer whose work has a retail price tag on it. I understand that an audio engineer with a hi-fi brand needs to answer your questions about the how’s and why’s of its designs. But also consider this: An audio engineer uses years of training and experience to design a circuit or cable, knows what to change to affect the sound, knows how to listen for these changes and understand what they mean in the long term for the system (remember, higher vibration frequency doesn’t mean a faster bicycle), and then knows how to consistently recreate this sound over tens or hundreds or thousands of units in a manufacturing process.

So why is it such a let down if he says he doesn’t know the exact mechanism by which changing this capacitor or that fuse changes the sound? Isn’t it far more important that he’s open to the fact that it does change the sound, and therefore “listens” to capacitors (and resistors and solder and connectors), rather than just finding ones that meet the specs on paper, and slapping them into your high-fidelity product?

I’ve been lamenting for a long time now that people find saying “I don’t know” harder than passing kidney stones. People like that have a conviction about everything that I don’t have about anything. I realize that I can’t let them intimidate me, and I need to stop apologizing for being an audiophile, and that doing so is, in some way, apologizing for being me.

Now, to screw my courage to the sticking-place and write that review on power cords. Yes, I heard a big difference.

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