Eustace Tilley, please clean your monocle

…and how about some of that famous New Yorker fact-checking?  Tilley’s  interest in science is noted in this delightful cover, and The New Yorker has published some excellent popular science, including environmental articles by John McPhee.  But this week’s embarrassingly adulatory profile of James Dyson, which retails one technical howler after another, raises the question (given the topic, which is Dyson) whether the inventor is a complete mountebank or the author just didn’t understand what he was told.

No, John, there is no supersonic flow inside a Dyson vacuum. No, there is nothing novel about using the Bernoulli effect to use a entrain a large volume of air into low-velocity flow with a small high-velocity jet, as the “ring fan”  does; every burner on every gas range and outdoor grill and lab bench does this.  There is nothing new about a centrifugal air cleaner – what the Dyson vacuum is – and you can see one on the roof of any factory that has to deal with wood chips or sawdust; in fact, I have a small one in my basement, hosed up to my table saw and planer.  Dyson’s version of it is indeed a very nice vacuum cleaner, but it is no more an invention than is his ballbarrow;  wheelbarrows with high-flotation tires and large, useful, buckets have been around for a long time and the spherical wheel is a visual gimmick.

It goes on and on: the blather about the Dyson digital motor can only be written by someone who has no idea how many kinds of electric motors are already humming away around the world, with and without brushes, fast and slow…and no, Dyson has not “doubled the efficiency”  of electric motors, which is typically way higher than 50%. [What is the sound of a 120% efficient device clapping – a vote to repeal the laws of thermodynamics?]  And what is the  “conventional motor” whose speed  Dyson’s version triples?  Grainger will sell you one anywhere from 1150 to 30,000 rpm, right off the shelf, all conventional, and a brushless electronically controlled dc motor is spinning your hard drive right now.  And no, microchips don’t “transmit current” to the rotor instead of brushes, electromagnetic induction does that and has for more than a century.

Maybe The New Yorker needs to hire somewhat fewer English majors and salt the crew with a couple of people who have a nodding acquaintance with physics.

Just sayin’.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

6 thoughts on “Eustace Tilley, please clean your monocle”

  1. They may need more English majors too; I caught an editing slip in this week's issue. A letter to the editor (and they do edit them) says, "I can determine the sex, age, and gender of the speaker."

  2. I don't know anything about that "Joan of Arc," but I googled out of curiosity, and Wikipedia states: "Joan of Arc is a 1796 epic poem composed by Robert Southey…. Eventually, Samuel Taylor Coleridge helped rewrite parts of the poem for a 1798 edition. Later editions removed Coleridge's additions along with other changes." Amazon.com also credits Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

  3. The article itself, both before and after the correction was made, refers to the poem as being by Southey; but the footnote explaining the correction (changing "William" to "Samuel Taylor") says that the poem is by Coleridge, and that the article originally stated it was by "William Coleridge." The article never stated that, and is in fact talking about marginal notes made by Coleridge on his copy of the poem as written by Southey.

  4. As soon as I started seeing ads for his products on the tube I had a gut feeling that Dyson was a charlatan. His claims just didn't pass my admittedly uninformed smell test. And there was something about his face and smug manner that rubbed me the wrong way. I'm glad to know my instincts have proved reliable in this instance.

  5. What DKF said. How could anyone have fallen for that guy's schtick after seeing just one of his commercials? Oh, yeah. The accent. I think I'll pass on the article this week.

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