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SciTech Daily Review

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Understanding Technology

Scientific explanation used to be a sign of classic B-grade science fiction, where the hero would use some arcane instrument and go into complex-sounding discussions of how it worked. Or, on disembarking on Mars, we would get a run-down on the then-current facts of the planet's physical characteristics.

It was something akin to flicking a light-switch and then going into a long discourse regarding electricity, incandescent bulb production and the early rivalry between AC and DC power. This is simply something we do not normally do (at least not unless we have small inquisitive children to deal with). We prefer to take our technology for granted and leave its actual functioning and maintenance to those trained in the necessary arts, whether it's a software engineer who knows how to get rid of those pesky viruses or the repair person who can extract the offending biscuit from the bowels of the VCR.

It doesn't even have to be something particularly hi-tech. I was struggling to carry an archery target across a stony field, having failed to untie the knots of the baling twine that held the thing together. A companion looked around, bent down and chipped two rocks together, and, lo, a suitably sharp blade was produced.

We tend to be on the receiving end of technology, but it behooves us to think where those developments began and how far we have come.

Yet there is still so much more to do -- and learn -- if we are to reach those other worlds and develop those profoundly different technologies that science fiction has presaged for us. Even the simplest things still hold secrets.

I was intrigued to find out the other day that how things stick together remains a sticky problem at the theoretical level. Humanity has been glueing things for thousands of years, but there are still four competing theories about how adhesion works.

Think about that the next time you're faced with two dozen glues at the local hardware shop, or when your surgeon reaches for the paste rather than the nylon.

Vicki Hyde is the editor of New Zealand Science Monthly.