Have you ever wondered what it feels like to be Sherlock Holmes?
In every one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, the reader will come across at least one scene where Sherlock Holmes reveals a seemingly impossible piece of knowledge; after his company expresses sufficient bafflement, Holmes will proceed to demonstrate how he easily arrived at the piece of knowledge in question. Once explained, his previously shocking statement often seems a trivial observation (which often adds to the amazement of his admirers).
The reader comes to accept this as a property of Sherlock Homes, and a motif in his stories. Few of us, perhaps, have met people like Holmes, and so haven’t had occasion to feel a humbling of this nature. Perhaps it is even more rare to arrive at a given deduction that unintentionally impresses our audience. How many of us have wondered what it would feel like to be on either end of this kind of this interaction?
About ten years ago I was somewhere in France, having dinner with a table of strangers. I’d been thoughtfully seated with a grad student who spoke English, and my interest was perked when she mentioned that her PhD concerned nuclear waste disposal. The conversation proceeded something like this:
“So you’re a nuclear physicist?”
“So… you’re working with porous materials… out of silicon?”
“…Yes — how did you know that?”
After explaining, I asked if she’d been successful. When she hesitated with her ‘yes’ I replied “Oh – so it works but it’s not economically feasible?”
“Yeah… that’s exactly–”
At this point I felt a rise in suspicion from her, and it seemed some part of her was considering the possiblity that I was a stalker or spy. At the time, I didn’t think I’d made any kind of impressive deductions – they were all as a result of my basic understanding of physics, chemisry,and economics. I hoped that my explanation of how I figured out what she was doing based on her limited prompts had put her mind at ease, but it’s hard to be sure. Let’s walk through it:
If you are trying to deal with nuclear waste – the radioactive product of nuclear fission – probably the best way to neutralize the unwanted radioactivity is to use further nuclear reactions to divert this product into a more stable form (ideally obtaining additional energy from each step). The instability would be related to the number of neutrons present with a given number of protons in a given nucleus. So in theory, if you can smash together or split apart the radioactive products in the right way, then you could end up with stable, non-radioactive products (which wouldn’t be waste at all). This would be a pretty big deal, and I imagine should such a solution ever be reached it will be the result of very clever and elegant work. This avenue of investigation would be the realm of nuclear physics.
Since she said she wasn’t a nuclear physicist , I figured she must be pursuing a solution using chemistry (I made the assumption that she wasn’t pursuing a solution that involved just launching all the waste into outer space… this solution would really just be a matter of logistics and feasibility analyses – and thus more in the realm of business or economics).
A chemical solution would likely involve locking up the radioactive chemicals, so they wouldn’t be free to roam, and perhaps their radiation could get soaked up or dampened by the compound being in question. I figured a porous substance would be the best at this, and if you are going to be working with varying shapes and chemical structures, it’s reasonable to favour something with 4 valence electrons (in organic chemistry you are often working with those nice, elaborate carbon skeletons that can fold into two and three dimensional configurations.1 The most likely candidates here would be carbon and silicon, and I think of silicon as being more stable than carbon, so I ventured silicon as my guess. Even as I came up with this, I wondered to myself why I think of silicon compounds as more stable than carbon compounds. Silicon is a larger atom, and so I’d assume that it’s valence electrons would be less constrained to remaining in their orbitals. (I still haven’t obtained clarification on this, but I keep meaning to find out). But at a glance, you’re comparing things like glass to things like petroleum and all the things that combust — so silicon seemed like the more likely candidate.
And that’s why ‘a porous silicon compound’ seemed like a safe bet (while being impressive in its obscure specificity).
Further, given the hint that she managed to develop something that could successfully bind up the nuclear waste and be safely stored underwater (as I remember it) — but that it wouldn’t be industrially implemeneted — well, there are all kinds of examples of things that work but aren’t done because they’re not economically feasible. Sure, this compound binds up nuclear waste, but it is so expensive to produce and implement that it would be cheaper to, say, buy a lot of land and dig a big hole and bury it. Or, perhaps, the value of the power generated is less than the cost of using this method to dispose of the waste. Or maybe the cost of this method is simply more than the current fines for improper disposal in France.
Otherwise, what motivations could there be for not adopting a functioning technology? If I’d been in error, then the explanations for why and how would have been very telling and informative (which I would argue represents the greatest value in guessing. Right or wrong, a guess generally yields interesting information and enables the guesser to further their understanding on the topic being guessed upon).
It is worth noting that my ability to make such a deduction was the result of pursuing an understanding of the basic principles of chemistry and physics over the course my studies. I find it unfortunate that doing so is unnecessary to succeed in our current academic climate. I often found myself in the minority of students genuinely interested in grokking2 the material in question, and I’ve often been surprised at how little a given university graduate knew or understood about their field of study. It is common practice to retain relevant information for no longer than the duration of an exam, causing one to wonder at the actual purpose of post-secondary education.
It is worth noting that a comprehensive understanding of any given subject can yield insights in vastly unrelated fields, while serving as a foundation for further inquiry and can even result in surprisingly practical applications.
Previous to this incident, I don’t think I’d ever considered what it felt like to be in Holmes’ position. Despite Holmes’ instruction on his method, readers tend to settle into a state of admiration for the skill of this fictional character. Only after I’d unintentionally recreated a typical Holmes situation, did I really think about it: “This must be what Sherlock Holmes would have felt like…” — to find one’s way to a reasonable guess, to be met with surprise, and find oneself surprised at their surprise.
We’re left asking, “What else don’t other people know?” as well as “What else am I missing?” What else could be realized with nothing more than further consideration?
1. Even writing this now, over a decade later, I see a new and interesting possibility: a protein based compound for sequestering nuclear waste. Protein chains can be designed so that they fold into secondary, tertiary, and even quaternary structures. Further, they could be manufactured via yeast, bacterium, or viruses, and even released as a byproduct of an organism with other useful properties. Consider an ocean fungus that was able to bind up and even utilize nuclear waste – or one that was dependent on it (so that population dynamics would allow its population to optimize to the amount of nuclear waste in its environment). Considering this, it offers an even more appealing avenue for potential research, since the compound production would in theory be able to self-regulate via negative feedback loops. While this could be considered a ‘carbon based’ compound, I’d set it aside as a separate category of solution – inorganic silicon compounds, carbon compounds, or proteins.
The other avenue, of course, would be nanotechnology – an field sufficiently unfamiliar to me that I will refrain from further speculation at this point.↖
2. A wonderful term coined by Robert Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land which I often find to be more appropriate than more conventional terms. It’s meaning was contained throughout the novel through context. It is quite far into the book before the reader is given the explanation that the literal meaning of ‘grok’ is ‘to drink,’ or ‘understand.’↖