You can find strange things in the waiting rooms of dentists. The oddly assorted publications are meant to anaesthetise patients against the second-order pains of anxiety and boredom, but sometimes they make matters worse. On the other hand, sometimes they strike an appreciated chord.

A correspondent – connected with our trade but not himself a reader of MPS – informs me that he stumbled on a copy† of our October 2009 issue in one torture-antechamber or another and was so moved by a remark of mine that he has been impelled to write to me about it.

All I did was to note on my October page that soothsayers are looting the archives for old answers to problems of the future. Curiously, this spurred my inadvertent reader to recall a one-time supervisor of his who made a reputation for himself by devising new feedback control systems ambodying ‘new’ types of sensor. Actually these transducers were new only in the sense that the physical or chemical or physico-chemical effect they were based on had lain hidden in research annals of long ago.

One such phenomenon, cited by my correspondent, was the piezo-electric effect, which proved useful for sending metal strain signals from structural members to servomechanical controllers and other plant items.

My memory is now being jogged too. I recall news that had media followers in The Netherlands and other countries agog a year or so ago. The story that spread like wildfire from Rotterdam was of a night club – the hip Club Watt they called it – that had been equipped with ‘a new type of dancefloor’.

According to The New York Times this contribution to electro-ecological advance was largely the product of the Sustainable Dance Club, a Dutch group of inventors, engineers and investors headed by Michel Smit, an aficionado of piezo-electric activity. (The paper explained that the effect is shown ‘by certain materials when squeezed’: they ‘produce electricity’.) Smit exploited such obliging material to enable Club Watt dancers’ footwork to generate power in proportion to their efforts. The output was sufficient to drive the ‘light show in and around the floor’.

It could, however, if a subsequent owner of the premises wished (said Mr Smit), power his toaster just as well.

Piezo-electricity was not the Sustainable Dance Club’s only resource. As well as the sustainable dance floor, patrons were apparently offered ‘rainwater-fed toilets and low-waste bars – everything was recycled including heat from the band’s amplifier and other ‘musical equipment’.

To Mr Smit and his followers, what more could be said by way of encouragement than: ‘Keep it up!’.

Choose fixers with care

In the sometimes wayward speech of our times the word fix has acquired a hardly congruous infirmity of meaning. It can even be used to convey senses that are opposites of each other. Thus a ‘fix’ may be the tricky situation one is in; but one may also call the answer to the problem a ‘fix’.

Humankind is thought to be in a fix because its environment is being warmed excessively under the influence of certain gaseous emissions. Meanwhile many answers to the problem are characterised in discussion as ‘technical’ fixes. Others are distinguished as ‘non-technical’ fixes when, for example, they are forms of taxation to deter such possible emission agents as the operators of coalfired power stations.

Non-technical fixes are preferred by scientifically innocent politicians and administrators to ‘meddling’ more directly with technology. This is just buck-passing. Competent bodies must tackle the technical problems in the end and provide technical solutions.

Ruling authorities too easily pretend to celestial detachment when a considerable range of technical possibilities is presented to them. A leader-writer on one of the world’s most influential politico-economic periodicals has expressed the attitude neatly. At the head of a brief survey of scientific and engineering options he warned: ‘Treat technical fixes for global warming with caution’.

Whether by intent or not, that is a delaying tactic. It is a way of leaving the problem predominantly to market forces. Today’s world has good cause to be wary of that.