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38 MIN READ TIME

Think Again

In the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, tucked in among the many internal combustion engine-driven automobiles that virtually defined the 20th century as the era of fossil fuels, is a small cadre of electric vehicles. Not the experimental designs from the 1980s, early prototypes of the 1990s, functional models of the 2000s, and the über elegant Teslas of the 2010s, but electric vehicles designed and built over a century ago. By 1900 more than 30,000 were registered in the United States, and they stood poised to replace the horse-andbuggy as the primary means of vehicular transportation in the world’s biggest cities. They were also quieter and less polluting than their gasoline-powered competitors, and taxi services were adopting the first EVs in Paris, Berlin, and New York. Then came the discovery and refinement of cheap oil. Henry Ford’s innovative assembly line process reduced the price of gas-powered Model T’s to half that of EVs. That, when coupled to the 30-mile limit of car batteries and the extensive roads and gasoline fueling infrastructure, doomed the electric car. Imagine where we’d be now with a century’s worth of EV R&D?

According to Steven Poole, who recounts this tale to open his engaging and enlightening book on how most “new” ideas are really old, Tesla’s popular Model S is so named because S comes before T in the alphabet and Elon Musk wanted to give a cheeky nod to the electric vehicle’s historical priority. “What is true in the consumer tech industry is true in science and other fields of thinking,” Poole elaborates. “The story of human understanding is not a gradual stately accumulation of facts,” but rather “a wild roller-coaster ride full of loops and switchbacks.”

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Other Articles in this Issue


COLUMNS
pH Mythology: Separating pHacts from pHiction
Are You An Unconscious Racist?
ARTICLES
The Rise of the Alt-Right and the Politics of Polarization
How the “Tractor”—an Early 19th Century Medical Quack Device—Was Debunked by One of the Earliest Single Blind Placebo Studies
UFOs and U-2s, Aliens and A-12s
WE SEEK TO ADDRESS A SINGULAR, SIMPLE QUESTION: are
How Atheists Differ in Their Views on God
SPECIAL SECTION AI DANGER
The human brain isn’t magic; nor are the problem-solving
OVER THE YEARS EXISTENTIAL THREAT WARNINGS have been
After over 50 years of mostly empty promises and disappointments
REVIEWS
A review of How Men Age: What Evolution Reveals About Male Health and Mortality by Richard G. Bribiescas
A Review of Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science by Dave Levitan.
Reviews of: Big Con: Great Hoaxes, Frauds, Grifts, and Swindles in American History by Nate Hendley Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff by Edward J. Balliesen Houdini’s ‘Girl Detective’ compiled by Tony Wolf The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For it…Every Time by Maria Konnikova
Review of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari.
JUNIOR SKEPTIC
We’ve all heard the story of Chicken Little—a fanciful