Productive upheaval

What’s bugging the bees?
This electron micrograph shows the aptly named Varroa destructor hitching a ride on its honeybee host. The mite feeds on immature bees, threatening colonies and the pollination of food crops.Image courtesy of Erbe, Pooley: USDA, ARS, EMU.

Almost anyone who works in business, government, or higher education has heard the term paradigm shift. These days, it’s applied to almost everything, from military doctrine to shoe fashion. But when the term first appeared, in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), it referred to something far more dramatic than a change in trend or strategic direction. Kuhn was describing the rare and often wrenching overthrow of one scientific theory by another, a crisis that dismantles a body of knowledge, renders it obsolete, and replaces it with something else. He contrasted this kind of upheaval with what he called “normal science,” the orderly progression of knowledge that accumulates in harmony with the prevailing theories of a discipline or field of study. By Kuhn’s definition, a paradigm shift is the exception, not the rule. And so, when it seems likely that one is under way in our midst, it’s time to sit up and take notice.

Andrew Mount, a Clemson biologist who studies shell formation in oysters, has for the last decade been fighting for what he believes to be a genuine paradigm shift in his field. Against stubborn skepticism, he and his research team have laid down layer upon layer of solid evidence that the long-held view of shell formation in oysters is demonstrably wrong. Mount has done this by using the powerful tools of modern biology to reveal how the shell-building process begins deep in the oyster’s cells, guided by an intricate design encoded in its genes. Mount has published his results in some of the world’s most prestigious journals, and has found widespread acceptance in Asia, but here in the U.S. the field has been slow to change. People don’t easily surrender seventy years of scientific certainty.

Uncertainty is par for the course, though, in the highly competitive realm of automotive engineering and manufacturing. The only certainty most people in the industry seem to agree on is that old paradigms and pet theories about what a car should be are losing ground. Not since the time of Henry Ford has the automobile faced a period of such swift and dramatic change. In fact, even our sober-minded engineers at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR), people not given to hyperbole, go so far as to herald this moment in history as the “Renaissance of the Car.”

What’s driving this renaissance? Multiple factors seem to be converging: a new generation of drivers who would just as soon be doing something else, rapid changes in technology and materials, new theories about drivetrains and energy sources, and tougher fuel-economy standards on the horizon. We cannot pull back the shroud and show you exactly what the car of the future will look like. But in our cover story for this issue, we can give you a glimpse of things to come.

R. Larry Dooley

Interim Vice President for Research