If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.




Science Friction with Bob Wolke

by Science Friction with Bob Wolke
November 26, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 48

Bob Wolke
Credit: Heather Mull
Credit: Heather Mull

As the price of crude oil reaches historic heights and gasoline at the pump hovers around $3.00 per gal, think back to about 10 years ago, when we were horrified at the prospect of gasoline's crossing the dollar-per-gal threshold.

CORRECTION: In my Oct. 29 column, I wrote that a British Medical Journal paper on antioxidants in martinis (Br. Med. J. 1999, 319, 1600) was a hoax. That was a wrong choice of words. Apparently, it was a whimsical report of real research, although published in the traditionally tongue-in-cheek Christmas issue of BMJ. I therefore apologize to the paper's authors, one of whom (John R. Trevithick) wrote to me and C&EN as follows:

"As I am a longtime ACS member and a good scientist, you owe us and BMJ an apology!!!

"[Our martini paper] was not a hoax. The experiment was a model situation, but the statistical differences were valid.

"In order to perform a controlled experiment it was necessary to set up a reproducible protocol, so we could not use olives or ice, but the shaking, proportions of gin and vermouth, and their antioxidant activities were carefully measured.

"BMJ was very careful to check on the paper, and although the Christmas issue of BMJ is traditionally lighthearted, the experiments have to meet scrutiny of peer review, the same as the regular papers it publishes. The Canadian Medical Journal Christmas issue, unlike BMJ, is a real hoax issue, with some made-up false presentations."

Oh, and Prof. Trevithick's daughter's name is Colleen, not Christine.

That was when we all sold our SUVs, joined carpools, and stopped driving on weekends. Right?

Yeah, sure. That'll be the day—when they pry the steering wheels from our cold, dead hands!

Americans will not curtail their driving until Gridlock Armageddon, when the combined lengths of all the cars on the highways, bumper to bumper, will equal the total length of the highways. I estimate that for this to occur, only about half the cars in the U.S. today need be on the roads.

Whenever there is a petroleum crisis, the media are full of tips for motorists on how to conserve gasoline: don't speed, keep your tires fully inflated, and so on. But it's the little things that count, so here are a few of my suggestions.

(Full disclosure: I previously proposed some of these actions in the July 15, 2000, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

• Reduce your car's aerodynamic drag by knocking off those protruding side mirrors. If you've already done that while backing out of your garage, congratulations.

• Lighten your car as much as possible. Fill your tires with helium instead of air. By my calculation, that should lighten your car by a whopping 95 g.

• Get rid of that heavy jack in your trunk. This is the 21st century. Use your cell phone to call AAA.

• You have perhaps tried unsuccessfully to diet, but no amount of weight reduction is too small to matter. If you are not already in the habit of doing so, leave your wedding ring at home when traveling to business conventions. You may be surprised at the results.

• When driving, study the road ahead carefully and steer into as many bumps as you can. When you hit a bump, your tires bounce upward, momentarily losing contact with the road and reducing friction.

• You can actually reduce the driving distance between any two cities. Say you're in the right lane and the road begins to curve slightly to the left. Switch abruptly into the left, or inside, lane; it's a shorter way around. And don't let anyone bully you into relinquishing your possession of the left lane until the road curves to the right.

• Hills can be murder on gas mileage, but it's only the uphill parts that waste fuel. Plan your trips to contain at least 2 miles of downhill run for every mile of uphill.

• When putting your car in the garage, don't drive in any farther than absolutely necessary. If every time the garage door closes it scratches the rear bumper, you're doing it right.

By diligently following these suggestions, you will be amazed at the number of drops of gasoline you will save.

Bob Wolke can be reached at



This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.